Russian police carried out mass raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses across the country in a new crackdown on the religious group.
Authorities carried out the raids today and made arrests as part of a new criminal case against the group, the Investigative Committee said.
The law enforcement agency said it had opened an investigation into the religion, which Russia has labelled ‘extremist’ and outlawed, which it suspected was organising its national centre in Russia and local affiliates.
Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the Jehovah’s Witnesses to disband in 2017 and some of its adherents have been jailed or hit with criminal charges in an ensuing crackdown.
According to human rights groups, hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses are facing criminal cases in Russia. Among them, Danish citizen Dennis Christensen (pictured in 2019 in Oryol) has remained behind bars following his detention in May 2017
The Investigative Committee said in a statement it had identified a number of the group’s organisers and followers in more than 20 regions and had taken them into custody as part of its investigation.
Some adherents have met privately in a flat in northwest Moscow from June 2019 to discuss and study religious literature relating to their faith, and have converted some Moscow residents, it said.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia where the Orthodox Church championed by President Vladimir Putin is dominant.
According to human rights groups, hundreds of followers are facing criminal cases in Russia, with dozens either imprisoned or awaiting trial.
Among them, Danish citizen Dennis Christensen has remained behind bars following his detention in May 2017. A court in central Russia convicted him for six years in February last year.
In September, a Russian court sentenced two Jehovah’s Witnesses to four years in prison after finding them guilty of extremism.
Vadim Levchuk and Sergei Britvin, who were detained in 2018 in the Siberian town of Beryozovsky, nearly 3,000 kilometres (1,860 miles) east of Moscow, will appeal against their jail sentence, the group said.
Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the Jehovah’s Witnesses to disband in 2017, labelling the religion ‘extremist’. Pictured: A sign outside the Russian administrative centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses based in the town of Solnechnoye in 2017
Jarrod Lopes, a US-based spokesman for the group, slammed their sentence as ‘patently absurd’.
The court did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Putin said in 2018 that he did not understand why authorities were pursuing the group and called for the matter to be analysed.
The Kremlin declined to comment on the raids today. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.