Thursday, March 11, 2021

Russian Officials Demanding Ever More Draconian Jail Sentences for Jehovah’s Witnesses

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 9 – Authoritarian governments count on being able to get away with real horrors if they dole them out in relatively small numbers and especially if there is more continuity than change in what they are doing. Journalists see little “new” to report, and foreign states conclude that they thus have less interest in getting involved.

            That pattern is disturbing in and of itself, but it often conceals something worse, a phenomenon which Russians describe by talking about frogs and hot water. If a frog is thrown into hot water, he will try to jump out; but if he is put in water and the water is then heated to a boil, he will die.

            Since the Russian Supreme Court in April 2017 banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations, both its Russian central office and the kingdom halls of groups of this denomination, the Russian authorities have extended that ban to the practice of the religion and gradually increased the severity of sentences they impose on them.

            In the latest violation of the Russian Constitution, the decision of the Russian Supreme Court, and fundamental human rights, prosecutors in Volgograd are seeking seven to nine years in prison for a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses who did nothing more than read the Bible and pray together (

            Three things are disturbing about this increasingly harsh treatment of people for practicing their faith. First, if the courts do in fact come back with sentences less than what prosecutors demand, there will be those in both Russia and the West who will proclaim that an act of liberalism, forgetting that there should never have been any charges at all.

            Second, because the numbers of people involved are small, because they are located in a city far from Moscow, and because there is little chance that there will be much coverage outside of the religious and human rights communities, this latest outrage by the Russian government against believers will become another step toward even worse moves in the future.

            And third, as a result of both, the Putin regime will conclude not only that it can continue along this course with respect to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have fewer allies inside and outside of Russia than they deserve but also that it can extend this practice to other groups, religious and not.

            To the extent that happens, the world will again have to cope with the situation so brilliantly captured by Pastor Niemoeller about the Nazis. When they came for other groups, he said, he didn’t say anything because he wasn’t a member of them. And then when they came for him, there was no one left to say anything in his defense. 

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