State Department: Russia Imprisoning, Robbing, Beating Jehovah’s Witnesses

Russian President Vladimir Putin applauds during a signing ceremony following his talks with Slovenian President at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 10, 2017. / AFP / POOL / Alexander Zemlianichenko (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom, released this week, revealed that in December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo placed Russia on a Special Watch List “for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.”

The executive summary of the State Department report on the country led by former KGB officer Vladimir Putin shows that while Russia’s constitution “provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion,” it does not live up to that promise.

Russian law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the “special role” of the Russian Orthodox Church. Despite these provisions, some groups falling under those categories are threatened, jailed, and tortured for practicing their faith, most prominently Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Throughout the year, authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that banned and criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as ‘extremist’ by raiding homes, seizing personal property, detaining hundreds of suspected members, and sentencing individuals to prison,” the summary stated. “There were reports that authorities physically abused Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other religious minority groups in detention.” 

On February 15, Investigative Committee officials in Surgut in west Siberia’s Khanty-Mansiysk Region detained seven male Jehovah’s Witnesses, the summary noted.

“According to the men, during their interrogation at the police station, authorities put bags over their heads, sealed the bags with tape, tied their hands behind their backs, and beat them,” the summary states. “Authorities stripped the men naked, doused them with water, and shocked them with stun guns for two hours.” 

“The SOVA Center reported criminal charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses were initiated in 21 new regions, meaning criminal prosecutions were ongoing in 52 regions at year’s end,” the summary detailed. “The SOVA Center stated authorities accused 313 individuals of belonging to the group and filed charges against 213 of them during the year. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported as of November, 287 members were subject to ongoing criminal prosecution. Of these, 46 adherents were in pretrial detention, 23 were under house arrest, and at least 135 were under travel restrictions.”

On September 10, the U.S. government imposed visa restrictions on two members of the Investigative Committee in Surgut “for their involvement in torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses held in detention there in February.”

“The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses estimated between 5,000 to 10,000 members had fled the country since the start of the government’s crackdown and related societal violence in 2017,” the summary read.

Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, told Breitbart News the new State Department report documents the ongoing persecution of members of the church.

“The State Department’s new annual IRF report well chronicles Russia’s unjust prosecution, imprisonment, and at times torture of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Lopes says. “This comes on the heels of a joint statement by 27 EU member states and 6 nonmember states likewise decrying Russia’s systematic persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

“Clearly, the world is watching and is gravely concerned over Russia’s breach of international human rights commitments,” Lopes said. “We hope Russia will soon halt the persecution and provide the freedom of religion that is enshrined in its constitution.”

Russia is also targeting other religious or quasi-religious groups like the Church of Scientology.

“Media reported in May that Sahib Aliyev, an accountant in the St. Petersburg branch of the Church of Scientology (COS), pled guilty to organizing an extremist community, illegal entrepreneurship, and ‘humiliation of human dignity,'” the State Department noted in one example. “Authorities arrested Aliyev and four other members of the COS in June 2017 as part of a probe into what police said was possible ‘illegal entrepreneurship,’ incitement of hatred, and organizing an extremist conspiracy.”

Antisemitism is included in the report on Russia, including government officials making antisemitic statements publicly:

According to media, during a visit to Jordan in August, Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov told a group of expatriate ethnic Chechens that Jews were “the main enemies of Islam.” The meeting was broadcast on Chechen state television. The month prior, he told a group of Chechen police that Israel was a “terrorist organization.” In an op-ed published on the Zavtra news website on May 6, Sergey Glazyev, an advisor to President Vladimir Putin, wrote that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, together with American and “extreme right-wing forces in Israel,” could orchestrate a “massive relocation” to replace the ethnic Russian population of eastern Ukraine with “inhabitants of the Promised Land.” Glazyev denied the op-ed was anti-Semitic, saying it did not mention Jews. 

In November the Anti-Defamation League released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 39 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Russia; 50 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 50 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

The report on Russia also lays out what U.S. diplomats are trying to do to address the violations of religious liberty.

“During the year, the U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with a range of government officials to express concern over the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict their activities,” the executive summary read. “The Ambassador also met with representatives of the ROC [Russian Orthodox Church] and minority faiths to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country.”

“In June senior officials from the Department of State met with the chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation to discuss the status of the Muslim community in the country,” the executive summary said. “Representatives from the embassy and consulates general in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with religious leaders and representatives from multiple faiths to discuss legislation impacting religious liberty, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases.”

“The embassy organized speakers and programs designed to promote religious tolerance and used its social media platforms to highlight religious freedom concerns,” the executive summary noted.

Follow Penny Starr on Twitter.

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