A 77-year-old Jehovah’s Witness in Russia's Far Eastern Primorye region has been handed a six-year suspended sentence on extremism charges amid an ongoing crackdown on the religious group that has been banned in the country since 2017.
A district court in the town of Volno-Nadezhdinskoye on March 15 found retired military officer Vladimir Filippov guilty of taking part in the activities of an “extremist organization" and also banned him from taking part in any public groups for three years.
Prosecutors had sought 6 1/2 years in prison for Filippov.
In his last testimony at the hearing, Filippov denied taking part in the activities of any extremist groups.
"I have never participated in extremist affairs, never expressed any hatred towards people of other nationalities and religions.... I did not commit a crime, but only exercised my constitutional right to believe in Jehovah, God," Filippov said.
The United States has condemned Russia's ongoing crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses and other peaceful religious minorities.
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, close Bible study, rejection of military service, and not celebrating national and religious holidays or birthdays.
Since the faith was outlawed in Russia, many Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia and the Russia-annexed Ukrainian Black Sea Crimean Peninsula.
According to the group, dozens of Jehovah's Witnesses were either convicted of extremism or are in pretrial detention.
The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses who've been charged with or convicted of extremism as political prisoners.