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'Extremism' Probe Launched Against Jehovah's Witnesses Leader In Russia

Jehovah’s Witnesses have long been viewed with suspicion by Russian authorities. (file photo)
Jehovah’s Witnesses have long been viewed with suspicion by Russian authorities. (file photo)

Authorities in Russia's Far Eastern Kamchatka region say they have launched a criminal investigation against a local leader of the Jehovah's Witnesses religion.

The Investigative Committee said on December 4 that the 34-year-old man, whose identity was not disclosed, is suspected of organizing Jehovah's Witnesses gatherings at least twice a week.

He also is suspected of distributing what Russian authorities say are “extremist” videos and books in the regional capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

If convicted, the man faces up to 10 years in prison.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have long been viewed with suspicion by Russian authorities because of their opposition to military service, voting in elections, or following government authority in general.

In 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court ruled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion was an “extremist” group, effectively banning an entire religious organization that claims some 170,000 adherents across Russia and more than 8 million worldwide.

It is one of several religious denominations that have come under increased pressure in Russia in recent years.

In August, the Investigative Committee said it detained three members of a Jehovah's Witnesses church in Kamchatka's town of Yelizovo -- the first members of the banned organization to be arrested in the region.

The committee said the three were suspected of "committing a crime linked to extremism" by participating in activities of "a banned religious organization."

Earlier in 2018, the Moscow-based Memorial human rights group said at least 29 Jehovah’s Witnesses had been detained on criminal charges across Russia since the Supreme Court’s rulings.

It said about two dozen were being held in detention centers while the others were confined to house arrest.

Memorial says the Supreme Court's ruling did not cite any instances of group members violating Russian laws or regulations.

Last summer, a group of about 60 Russian writers, historians, and activists signed an appeal calling on authorities to stop persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In June, advisers to Russian President Vladimir Putin questioned the legality of criminal cases opened against Jehovah's Witnesses and asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to protect the group's religious freedom.

The United States has called on Russia to release dozens of people it says have been identified by rights groups as political prisoners.

They include Jehovah’s Witnesses that Washington says have been in pretrial detention for more than a year.

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