PSKOV, Russia -- A court in Russia's northwestern city of Pskov has sentenced a Jehovah's Witness, Gennady Shpakovsky, to 6 1/2 years in prison.
Judge Galina Belik on June 9 found Shpakovsky guilty of being a leading member of a banned extremist religious group and sentenced him the same day.
The 61-year-old Shpakovsky refused to accept any guilt, saying that he has the right to follow his religion and share his religious views with others.
He came to the trial's last hearing with a bag filled with personal items, signalling he was ready to be taken into custody.
"I consider myself not guilty.... I did not commit any crime against any person, the government, the country, or the existing system. The charging files against me do not have a defined damage or a victim. I am being persecuted for my faith," Shpakovsky told RFE/RL before the judge pronounced her ruling.
Russia officially banned the religious group in April 2017 and deemed it an "extremist organization," a designation the U.S. State Department has characterized as "wrong."
For decades the Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.
The Christian group is known for door-to-door preaching, Bible study, rejection of military service, and not celebrating national and religious holidays or birthdays.
Since the faith was outlawed in Russia, several Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia and the Russia-annexed Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
They include Danish citizen Dennis Christensen, who was sentenced in February 2019 to 6 years in prison in the western city of Oryol. The charges against Christensen have been condemned by rights groups in Russia and abroad.
In September 2019, Washington banned two high-ranking regional officers from Russia's Investigative Committee from entering the United States over alleged torture of seven detainees who are Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized 29 Jehovah’s Witnesses who've been charged with or convicted of extremism as political prisoners.
On January 9, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Russian law enforcement authorities had “dramatically escalated the nationwide persecution” of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the previous year.
HRW said Russian authorities have carried out at least 780 raids of houses owned by Jehovah's Witnesses in dozens of Russian cities since 2017. More than half of those raids were conducted in 2019.