(RNS) — A female Jehovah’s Witness has been sentenced to two years in a Russian prison for practicing her faith, marking the first time the country has imprisoned a woman since a 2017 ruling that declared the faith group “extremist.”
Valentina Baranovskaya, 69, was sentenced Wednesday (Feb. 24) along with her son, Roman Baranovskiy, 46, who received a six-year sentence.
“Today, Judge Elena Shcherbakova ruthlessly imprisoned a harmless, elderly woman and her son on baseless charges,” said Jarrod Lopes, spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The ruling was a mockery of the rule of law — both international human rights law as well as Russia’s constitution, which protects religious freedom.”
In October, a Jehovah’s Witness named Yuriy Zalipayev was acquitted and shortly afterward six other members of the faith were given suspended sentences by a different judge.
Russian authorities raided the Baranovskiy home in 2019, along with the homes of three other Jehovah’s Witnesses in Abakan, in south-central Russia. Law enforcement officers confiscated Bibles, personal records and electronic devices.
Proceedings in Baranovskaya’s case were postponed when she was diagnosed with a stroke in July, but they resumed in December.
Calling her sentencing “particularly cruel,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday that the U.S. is “disturbed by reports” of the latest court decisions.
“We urge Russia to lift its ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses and to respect the right of all to exercise their freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief,” he said.
Price said 52 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned for practicing their faith since the 2017 Supreme Court designation, including Aleksandr Ivshin, who recently received a record-length sentence of seven and a half years.
Human rights watchdogs also condemned the sentencings.
“Valentina Baranovskaya and her son, Roman Baranovskiy, have done nothing wrong, and they should be immediately freed,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “Russia’s authorities should stop the campaign of persecution against Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Commissioner Gary Bauer, noting Baranovskaya’s age and health, called her sentencing “a new low in Russia’s brutal campaign against religious freedom.”
Lopes noted that international criticism of Russia’s actions is ongoing.
“Nevertheless, Russian authorities across the Federation have persisted in imprisoning and at times beating peaceful Jehovah’s Witnesses practicing their Christian beliefs,” he said. “We hope that Jehovah’s Witnesses will one day be allowed to freely read the Bible and worship in Russia as they do in over 200 other lands.”
This story has been updated.