(RNS) — Three Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia were convicted and sentenced to prison for practicing their faith on Thursday (July 29). Vilen Avanesov, 68, was sentenced to six years, and his son Arsen Avanesov, 37, along with a third defendant, Aleksandr Parkov, 53, were both sentenced to six-and-a-half years. All three men have already spent more than two years in pretrial detention.
“These men should never, ever have had to spend a minute in prison, and yet they’ve been locked up for two years,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “It is never too late for Russian authorities to stop these arrests, release Jehovah’s witnesses who are behind bars, stop these criminal proceedings, and quash the convictions that have already taken place.”
The three Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained in Rostov-on-Don in May 2019 and accused of continuing the operations of a Jehovah’s Witness organization that had been liquidated. All three were charged with organizing extremist activities. In January 2020, Arsen Avanesov was also accused of “financing extremist activities” by collecting donations to rent a room to meet with other Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their trial was held at the Leninskiy District Court of Rostov-on-Don.
Near the trial’s conclusion, Arsen Avanesov spoke of his devotion to God: “I dedicated my life to him and did it sincerely. … I don’t want, I can’t and will not give up my promise.”
The sentences for the three men are considered particularly harsh in a country where rape is punishable by three years in prison and kidnapping by five. The sentencing follows a 2017 ruling that categorizes the religious group as “extremist.” Since 2017, 14 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been sentenced to six or more years of prison in Russia.
“‘Extremism’ in Russia is an indictment delivered by diktat labelling a number of organisations, including Jehovah’s Witnesses,” said Sir Andrew Wood, former U.K. ambassador to Russia (1995-2000). “It has no credible definition. It carries harsh penalties. Persons who remain true to their convictions are especially exposed to its cruelty. Its purpose is repression, not the exercise of justice.”
In October 2020, religious scholars from around the world called on President Vladimir Putin and his administration to end the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Initially Russia seemed to respond to the scholars’ request — a judge acquitted one Jehovah’s Witness in October 2020 — but since then Jehovah’s Witnesses have continued to be imprisoned for their beliefs.
“Russia’s persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses has been arbitrary,” said Jarrod Lopes, spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in an email to Religion News Service. “(T)he crackdown is being driven largely by the local authorities’ level of discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses and not based on justifiable evidence.”
Lopes said authorities in the Rostov region are some of the most aggressive toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to Lopes, Rostov authorities have raided more than 30 homes belonging to Jehovah’s Witnesses and have pressed charges against 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses so far. The Jehovah’s Witnesses convicted Thursday are three of nine in prison in the region.
In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended Russia be labeled a country of “particular concern” for its persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to Lopes, there are 51 Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned in Russia and Crimea.
“Arrogantly and barbarically, Russian officers record themselves raiding the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses and forcibly arresting them,” said Lopes. “Jehovah’s Witnesses want nothing more than to freely worship in their home country as their fellow believers do in over 200 other lands.”