Ukraine dispatch: Russia-controlled court in Crimea convicts four Jehovah’s Witnesses Dispatches
Ukraine dispatch: Russia-controlled court in Crimea convicts four Jehovah’s Witnesses

Oksana Bidnenko is a staff correspondent for JURIST. She is a Ukrainian law student at the Riga Graduate School of Law in Riga, Latvia, and is currently an exchange student at the University of Oslo, Norway.

Earlier this week, the press service of the ‘Russian Investigative Committee in Crimea’  reported that the Russian-controlled Yalta City Court sentenced four “Jehovah’s Witnesses”.

The report issued on February 27th states that three persons were sentenced to different terms of punishment – from 6 years 6 months to 6 years 1 month, which will be served in a correctional colony under the general regime. Also, after the expiration of the specified term, the persons convicted were assigned a restriction of freedom for a period of 1 year. The court sentenced the active member of the group to three years of imprisonment conditionally with a similar probationary period. A fifth suspect is currently wanted internationally. Additionally, the names and surnames of the convicts and the accused are not indicated and there are no public comments from them.

Radio Svoboda/Krym.Realii earlier announced that the Armenian and Yalta City Courts, which are under the control of Russia, have initiated legal proceedings against several individuals for allegedly organizing and funding extremist activities related to the “Jehovah’s Witnesses” faith.

The international religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has more than 8 million active disciples, was banned in Russia by a decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation of April 20, 2017 and an appeal ruling of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation of July 17, 2017. Due to the fact that Russia has illegally annexed the autonomous republic of Crimea in 2014, this ruling was applied to the territory of Crimea as well by Russia.

In fact, this is not the first time that the Russian Federation has violated the right to freedom of religion in Crimea. After occupation, Russia established the Russian Orthodox Church as a main religion and started to put pressure on others. After 2014, other Orthodox jurisdictions were expelled from Crimea, i.e. the Kyiv Patriarchate and the UAOC (Autocephalous Church), part of the Greek Catholics.

Similar oppression is also reported in the Donbas region. The priest of the Protestant  church “Dobra Novyna” in Slovyansk city (Donetsk region) in an interview to the media mentioned that people who believe in religion and live in areas outside of Ukrainian control are unable to openly gather for their spiritual needs. Instead, they are forced to meet secretly in underground gatherings where they pray, sing, and listen to religious teachings. If Russian soldiers discover these gatherings and only members of the church are present, they may be subjected to disciplinary measures. If a pastor is leading the gathering, they may face imprisonment for up to 10 years.

The Ukrainian State Service for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience reports that in the temporarily occupied territories, there has been a concerning trend in 2020-2021 where individuals engaging in “illegal missionary activities” have been prosecuted. While such an article is not present in Ukrainian law and religious communities in Ukraine can freely preach, the occupation authorities have been initiating administrative proceedings under Article 5.26 of the Russian Federation’s Criminal Code, which pertains to violations of religious freedom laws. This has impacted those practicing Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and fines for “illegal missionary activity” have totaled around 2 million rubles during the occupation period.

The State Service also adds that since 2014  it has been receiving  messages from Crimea about the impossibility of free sermons in mosques: the text must be agreed centrally with the occupying power. Under the pretext of fighting extremism, there have been numerous arrests of Muslims, almost all of whom are Crimean Tatars. The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, which operates freely and peacefully in Ukraine, is banned as an “extremist organization.” It is obvious that the repressions are caused by the resistance to the occupation by the Crimean Tatar activists.

After the start of full-scale invasion, Russian forces have damaged or fully destroyed more than 300 of churches and other religious buildings in Ukrainian territories and Russia continues its oppressions against various representatives of religious groups, including “Jehovah’s Witnesses” although they are unarmed civilians.  That is the reason why the international community has to impose more sanctions on the Russian Federation and continue its assistance to Ukraine to stop the unjustified violations of human rights against people.