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Russia jails six Jehovah’s Witnesses for extremism

Jehovah's Witnesses

Punishments range from two years to three and a half years in jail.

A Russian court convicted six Jehovah’s Witnesses of extremism on Thursday, sending to them to jail for as much as three and a half years, according to a Reuters report.

“Yes they were convicted,” the court spokeswoman, Olga Pirueva, told Reuters. “Punishments ranged from three years and six months down to two years (in jail),” she said.

In 2017 the Supreme Court of Russia issued a ruling which effectively banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as members of an “extremist” organization.

Extremism is defined by a 2002 law as “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of a person on the basis of their religious affiliation or attitude toward religion”–  a law intended to address terrorist threats from Islamist fundamentalists.

In recent years, however, it has been used to control the activities of non-violent sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists, according to a report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Earlier this month the U.S. State Department banned two high-ranking members of Russia’s Investigative Committee from entering the United States for allegedly torturing Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In a statement issued to the press on the ban, the State Department called the 2017 law designating Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists “wrongful.”  

The statement detailed the acts of torture allegedly committed:

The Department has credible information that Yermolayev and Tkach were involved in torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Surgut, Russia.  On February 15, 2019, officers of the Surgut Investigative Committee, led by Yermolayev and Tkach, subjected at least seven Jehovah’s Witnesses to suffocation, electric shocks, and severe beatings during interrogation at the Committee’s headquarters.  This brutality stands in marked contrast to the peaceful practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been criminally prosecuted for their religious beliefs in Russia since a 2017 Supreme Court decision affirming their wrongful designation as an “extremist organization.”

The State Department statement called for an end to the “unjust campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and immediately release the over 200 individuals it currently has imprisoned for exercising their freedom of religion or belief.”

In responses, a Russian lawmaker accused the United States of interfering in Russia’s affairs.

“The United States continues to blindly slap Russian citizens with sanctions,” a move that “brazenly interferes into the affairs of sovereign states to attain its geopolitical goals,” said Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the State Duma, according to a report from Radio Free Liberty Radio Free Europe.

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