Staunton, December 23 – According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, 250 of those it counts as political prisoners in Russia at the end of 2019 are behind bars for their religious beliefs, while only 64 are there for their political views, a dramatic change from earlier years and one that reflects the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christians, not Muslims.
Memorial acknowledges that this list is incomplete but suggests the balance between religious and political detainees would unlikely to be changed if it were able to gather more complete information (memohrc.org/ru/news_old/memorial-v-preddverii-nastupayushchego-2020-goda-publikuet-obnovlyonnye-spiski-politzekov).
In an editorial for Credo Press, religious specialist Anton Chivchalov says that Moscow’s campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses is putting Russia on track to have more of them behind bars than any other country. (At present, he says, Eritrea has the unenviable position of being in first place in that regard.) (credo.press/228265/).
During the last year, Russian courts behave to hand down the first real jail terms to Jehovah’s Witnesses for their religious activity. Such cases have now occurred in 52 of the federal subjects; and while this “anti-extremism” campaign began in the provinces out of sight of journalists and diplomats, in September, it reached Moscow.
In not a single case have officials been able to provide evidence of a real crime, Chivchalov says; and what is especially worrisome is that increasingly the authorities don’t seem to see any need to conceal that they are going after people solely because of their religious beliefs rather than because of any specific acts.
Prosecutors and some judges are even willing to find the Bible extremist. In Kirov, for example, “experts” claimed to see extremism in Psalm 29 and even in the Synodically approved version. And in Russia, Chivchalov points out, “in Russia and only in it as before is banned the site of the Jehovah’s Witnesses “on which are placed translations of the bible in the largest number of languages in the world.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses now held as political prisoners have been subjected to horrific tortures, as in Surgut in February. Their jailors used electro-shocks on them as well as beating them with clubs. That led to an outcry but it remains unclear how many others are being victimized in the same way.
Official charges against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christian groups have become so hyperbolic and absurd, the Credo Press commentator says, that some judges are beginning to question what the prosecutors are doing and even rule against them, a trend that if it continues may provide some basis for greater optimism in the coming year.
“Alas, despite these outbursts of good sense, over the past year, Russia has broken through to a new level in the return to medieval conditions: for the first time since the disintegration of the USSR have been handed out prison terms and torture inflicted not only on Jehovah’s Witnesses but other Christian believers as well.”
Because of this trend, he says, “thousands of law-abiding, hard-working and tax-paying Russians have preferred emigration” to remaining in a country where they cannot practice their faiths. At least 5,000 have made that choice, and their number is likely to grow given that any hopes for serious improvement dissipated in the course of 2019.
Russia is “confidently and willingly saying goodbye to its status as a secular state where one can confess any religion or not confess any. Russians won’t have that luxury in the future,” Chivchalov suggests.