Religious liberty groups expressed alarm Thursday that a Russian pressure campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses was expanding, after a member of the faith was sentenced to six years in a penal camp in the former Ukrainian region of Crimea.
Sergey Filatov, a father of four, was convicted in the Dzhankoysky District Court of the Republic of Crimea — a federal region under the control of the Russian Federation — for so-called “extremist activities” that the spokesperson for the Christian sect’s international body termed an “injustice” being directed by Russian officials.
“We are deeply disturbed that the court sentenced Sergey to prison for six years, separating him from his wife and children,” said Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for the faith. “This bleak development in Crimea is the latest example of Russia exporting its patently extreme religious intolerance.”
Thursday’s conviction marks the first sentencing in the annexed Ukrainian region. Russian officials have raided and prosecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses since a 2017 high court ruling found the faithful to be guilty of violating an “anti-extremist” law. But this is the first time the penalties have been carried out in the Black Sea Peninsula.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have drawn ire from Russians officials for citing their faith in refusing to perform military service, for their questioning of governmental authority and for hosting religious gatherings that do not follow the state-allied Russian Orthodox faith. Supporters contend the faithful are persecuted because of religious bigotry.
“Sergei Filatov is a prisoner of conscience, facing years in a penal colony solely for expressing his faith,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director. “It is chilling to see the Russian authorities roll out their pursuit of Jehovah’s Witnesses across the border.”
Russian military forces occupied the Crimean Peninsula in February and March of 2014, shortly afterward annexing the territory from Ukraine. The seizure sparked a major campaign of sanctions by the U.S. and its European allies, but the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has only intensified links between Crimea and the rest of Russia.
Now, Amnesty International officials contend, the “repressive legal framework” against Jehovah’s Witnesses inside Russia is being replicated in Crimea, as well.
Since 2017, Russian authorities have investigated hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses, freezing their local religious organization status and — often at gunpoint — raiding homes of the faithful. Mr. Filatov, church officials say, was arrested on Nov. 16, 2018, with over three dozen law enforcement officials searching his home.
Mr. Filatov, who had been living in Ukraine, had moved to the Russian-controlled enclave to care for an ill daughter, according to Crimean Solidarity, a rights group that has members in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Thursday.
At trial, prosecutors said Mr. Filatov “undermined the foundations of constitutional order and the security of the state.”
The international community has not ignored the crackdown. Russia has been labeled a “country of particular concern” by the U.S. State Department for its treatment of religious minorities. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch also called on the Russian government to cease prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have also filed many cases with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has sponsored a bill calling for Russia — as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions — to uphold religious freedom for persons living in occupied Crimea.
So far no action has been taken on this bill.
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