Jehovah's Witness jailed in Russia for extremism, lawyer says

Alexander Marrow, Reuters

Posted at Jun 09 2020 06:41 PM

A law enforcement officer stands guard outside the closed Moscow Cathedral Mosque amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Moscow, Russia May 24, 2020. Maxim Shemetov, Reuters/File

MOSCOW - A Russian court on Tuesday sentenced a Jehovah's Witness to six and a half years in prison after finding him guilty of organizing the activities of a banned extremist organization, his lawyer said.

The ruling at the Pskov City Court, handed to 61-year-old Gennady Shpakovskiy, was the harshest sentence for a Jehovah's Witness in Russia since a Supreme Court decision in 2017 ruled the Christian denomination was an extremist organization and should disband, the group said.

Shpakovskiy, who denied the charges, would appeal the decision, said his lawyer, Arly Chimirov.

The US-headquartered Jehovah's Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.

Jehovah's Witnesses say 30 members of their faith are currently serving time in prison or pre-trial detention in Russia, while more than 300 are under criminal investigation.

Shpakovskiy, who was first charged in March 2019, was additionally charged with financing extremist activities later that year.

Jarrod Lopes, a US-based spokesman for the religious group, condemned Shpakovskiy's conviction.

"Today, Russia has arbitrarily imprisoned another peaceful believer, disregarding its own constitution and international human rights law," he said in a statement.

"The city court's ruling is in defiance of repeated demands by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and other prominent international actors to stop arresting, detaining, and prosecuting Jehovah's Witnesses for their peaceful worship."

The court did not immediately respond to a Reuters 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. The group has about 170,000 followers in Russia, and 8 million worldwide.