MOSCOW -- Russian lawyers and rights activists have denounced the alleged torture of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Siberian city of Surgut, calling a Moscow press conference to present documentation of injuries followers of the banned religion claim to have suffered at the hands of the Russian authorities.
Lev Ponomaryov, an activist from the group For Human Rights, said on March 28 that Investigative Committee Director Aleksandr Bastrykin should be dismissed over claims by the seven men that they were tortured after being arrested in mid-February on charges of belonging to a banned "extremist" group.
Ponomaryov said the denials by employees of Russia's Investigative Committee who allegedly tortured the men were "laughable."
"Either [Bastrykin] is consciously encouraging the violence perpetrated by his subordinates, or he absolutely can't control the activities of his regional structures," Ponomaryov told journalists.
Ponomaryov and Civic Assistance rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina, together with four lawyers who represent Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, called for a criminal investigation into the claims that Investigative Committee employees in Surgut forced false confessions from the men by suffocating them and torturing them with stun guns.
The group also presented results from an independent medical analysis, based on photos of the men's injuries, which concluded that they showed signs of being tortured.
Yegiazar Chernikov, a lawyer representing the seven men, announced the surnames of Investigative Committee employees in Surgut that he claimed were involved: "Yermolaev, Tkach, Adiatullin, Gaysin, Bogoderov, and Asmolov."
Chernikov told RFE/RL he did not have any evidence that officials from Moscow took part in the interrogations in Surgut or that the raids had been ordered from the Russian capital.
The U.S.-based Jehovah's Witnesses organization has long been viewed with suspicion by the Russian government for its positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general.
A 2017 ruling by Russia's Supreme Court effectively banned worshippers from the country, but the group says it still has about 170,000 adherents in the country.
Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman based at the religious organization's New York headquarters, says 40 Jehovah's Witnesses were detained in Surgut in raids on February 15, and seven were tortured.
The claim elicited an uproar from the international community and vehement denials from Moscow.
Surgut's Investigative Committee launched a probe into the activities of its own employees, and on March 27 issued a statement suggesting the Jehovah's Witnesses were to blame for the injuries they sustained.
"Employees of law enforcement deployed combat maneuvers within the scope of their authority, which led to minor bruises and grazes on the legs" of the defendants, the statement said.
Such measures were necessitated by "active resistance" during attempts by police to search the homes of the faith's adherents in Surgut, the statement said.
All other reported injuries, including burn wounds from stun guns, could only have occurred at a later date, the Investigative Committee said.
The authorities in Surgut also said efforts by Jehovah's Witnesses to spread rumors about state repression and torture were aimed at influencing the investigation and discrediting law enforcement officials who "routinely come across this 'active line of resistance' on the part of defendants."
Yaroslav Sivulsky from the Jehovah's Witnesses' European branch said the Surgut raids were part of a broader clampdown in Russia in which 27 people remain detained, 28 are under house arrest, 60 have been subjected to travel restrictions, and 165 are under investigation.
Sivulsky said raids had been conducted by police and law enforcement in 36 Russian regions and 400 separate locations since the April 2017 ban came into force.
President Vladimir Putin has appeared, at times, to oppose the crackdowns on Jehovah's Witnesses, telling his Human Rights Council on December 11, "We probably can, and even at some point should, be much more liberal toward representatives of various religious sects."
But Sivulsky said that the crackdown across Russia had accelerated since Putin made that remark, suggesting that local authorities are trying to convince their superiors in Moscow that the faith's adherents are dangerous extremists.
"Those who believe that the Jehovah's Witnesses would scatter after their ban, or disown their faith en masse, have clearly not learnt the historical lessons of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or the first Christians," Sivulsky said.
Gannushkina, who heads Civic Assistance and has provided legal aid to Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia's North Caucasus region, said believers in Russia were defenseless against the state's prohibition.
"If there's violence a person can turn to law enforcement, but in this situation they cannot do so," Gannushkina said. "These people find themselves in a completely hopeless situation."
"What should I do with such people when they turn to me? What should I tell the courts, what should their lawyer say? That these people are being repressed because they're members of a banned organization?" she said. "That will look like a denunciation, not legal defense."