Russia detains more Jehovah's Witnesses amid crackdown

2019-02-08 06:36
Participants attend a hearing on the justice ministry request to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses at Russia's Supreme Court in 2017. (Vasily Maximov/AFP)

Participants attend a hearing on the justice ministry request to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses at Russia's Supreme Court in 2017. (Vasily Maximov/AFP)

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The Russian security service has detained several Jehovah's Witnesses in the central region of Mordovia, police said on Thursday, as pressure intensifies on the US-based religious movement.

On Wednesday, a Russian court sentenced Dennis Christensen, a Danish Jehovah's Witness, to six years in prison for "extremism".

He became the first adherent of the Christian evangelical movement to be sent to prison in Russia.

The same day, several Jehovah's Witnesses were detained in Mordovia, police said.

"The large-scale operation" was conducted by the FSB security service together with police and other law enforcement agencies, police said.

READ: Russia Supreme Court bans Jehovah's Witnesses

"An investigation is under way," police added in a statement.

Jehovah's Witnesses are a Christian denomination that originated in the United States in the late 19th century and preaches non-violence.

The Russian authorities consider the movement a totalitarian sect and in 2017, Moscow designated it as an extremist organisation, ordering its dissolution in the country.

Since then a crackdown on believers has intensified, with more than 20 Jehovah's Witnesses in custody, awaiting trial on extremism charges, while 25 are under house arrest.

The sentencing of Christensen provoked a public outcry, with rights groups comparing Moscow's pressure on the group to the persecution of believers during the Soviet era.

He was given the lengthy prison term even though Russian President Vladimir Putin said in December that Jehovah's Witnesses should not be seen as terrorists.

Jehovah's Witnesses pursued as 'extremists' in Russia

With masks and rifles, police came to Anatoly Vilitkevich's door in the early morning and made him pack a bag. He was wanted for religious extremism - as a Jehovah's Witness. "Forget it," they told his wife, Alyona, taking away the couple's tablet devices, computers and phones.

"Utter nonsense," he said at a meeting with rights activists, saying officials needed to look into the pressure against the movement closely.

Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday the Kremlin could not comment on the court ruling but added that officials would be looking into the issue.

"This will be happening. This is a process. This is not an easy subject," he told reporters.

Asked whether the Jehovah's Witnesses were an extremist or religious organisation according to common sense, Peskov said: "We cannot be guided by the notion of common sense for state purposes."

Foreign governments have said they were concerned by Christensen's sentencing.

"We agree with President Putin that persecuting peaceful believers is utter nonsense, and call on Russia to respect freedom of religion," Andrea Kalan, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Moscow, said on Twitter.

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