Jehovah’s Witness sentenced to six years for ‘extremism’ in Russia
Sergei Klimov jailed for organising prayer meetings for outlawed religious group
Sergei Klimov: was accused of heading a covert Jehovah’s Witness cell in Tomsk, recruiting new believers and collecting charitable donations.
The ruling on Tuesday came amid an escalating crackdown on the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia that rights groups have condemned as an unlawful attack on religious freedom.
A Tomsk court ordered Sergei Klimov to serve six years in prison for organising Jehovah’s Witnesses activities and prayer meetings in the city while in full knowledge that the religious group was outlawed in Russia.
State prosecutors had called for an even tougher seven-year sentence after accusing Klimov of heading a covert Jehovah’s Witness cell in Tomsk, recruiting new believers and collecting charitable donations.
Klimov, who has been held in custody since a police raid on his home in Tomsk in June 2018, refused to testify during his trial. Lawyers for the defence said they would appeal against the verdict.
Russia’s supreme court outlawed the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017 after classifying the religious group as an “extremist organisation” – the same designation used for Islamic State.
Although practising the faith is not explicitly illegal, all Jehovah’s Witnesses representative offices in Russia have been closed and believers are forbidden to proselytise or distribute religious literature.
Over the two years since the supreme court ruling, the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Russia has come under attack from law enforcers, with police raiding their homes and prayer meetings and conducting arrests.
Dedicated pacifists, Jehovah’s Witnesses are easy targets and there have been disturbing reports of believers being tortured while in custody.
The US state department imposed a visa ban on two Russian investigators in September, alleging that they had subjected Jehovah’s Witnesses to severe beatings and electric shocks during interrogation in a prison in the Siberian town of Surgut.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has denied the torture charges.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation, 44 of its followers are in detention in Russia, including 10 who have been convicted on extremism charges. A further 25 are under house arrest. It claims that the detainees are being jailed for “their peaceful Christian worship”.
The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Centre has declared all Jehovah’s Witnesses on remand or under house arrest to be political prisoners and has called for their immediate release.
Russia is officially a secular country and religious freedom is upheld by law. But the Kremlin has always been wary of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ American roots and its rejection of military service. The powerful Russian Christian Orthodox Church has declared the religious group a “sect” that threatens to undermine state institutions.
Facing questions last year about the reported persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Vladimir Putin promised to look into how the supreme court’s ban was being applied. People of all religions were entitled to equal treatment under Russian law, he said.
However, speaking after Klimov was sentenced on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Tomsk court had ruled in accordance with “existing” Russian law. “We can’t comment and we will not comment,” he said.