ABINSK, Russia -- A court in Russia's Krasnodar region has sentenced a 63-year-old Jehovah's Witness to 7 1/2 years in prison, a decision immediately condemned by the U.S. State Department.
The sentence is the harshest since authorities launched a campaign against the religious group after it was officially labeled as extremist and banned in the country in 2017.
The Abinsk district court on February 10 found Aleksandr Ivshin guilty of the "organization of an extremist group's activities," and sentenced him the same day.
Yaroslav Sivulsky of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses told RFE/RL on February 11 that this was the "harshest sentence ever given to a Jehovah's Witness in Russia" and is "equal to life imprisonment" given Ivshin's age.
"Aleksandr Ivshin is an old person and has medical problems. In fact, he was handed a prison term that might be longer that the time he will live," Sivulsky said.
Ivshin pleaded not guilty, saying that his life principles are based on Bible teachings that do not include violence and extremism.
Investigators say that Ivshin organized online Bible studies with other members of the group, which according to them, is a crime since the religious group is officially banned in the country.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said on February 11 that the United States condemns Russia's continued crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses and other peaceful religious minorities in the strongest possible terms.
Also on February 10, police in Moscow and the surrounding region searched 15 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses and detained several of them for questioning. Three of them remain in custody.
Meanwhile, the Kursk regional court in Russia's west on February 10 again rejected the early release request of a jailed Danish member of the Jehovah's Witnesses who has been serving a 6 year prison term since 2017, the religious organization said.
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.
In September 2019, Washington banned two high-ranking regional officers from Russia's Investigative Committee from entering the United States over the alleged torture of seven detainees who are Jehovah's Witnesses.
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.