MOSCOW -- On the morning of February 15, Yevgeny Kayryak and his wife were woken by loud banging on the front door of their home in Surgut, a city in western Siberia. Kayryak said he opened the door to a group of 10 people of whom two were armed and masked.
The couple was ordered onto the ground, and Kayryak was told he'd been charged with extremism and faced up to 10 years in prison.
He immediately suspected the raid was connected with his religious beliefs. As a Jehovah's Witness, he supports the U.S.-based religious group that Russia banned in April 2017 and has since subjected to a widening clampdown.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Kayryak said he was taken to a police precinct, where he said he was tortured and pressured to say -- falsely -- that he was a registered member of the faith's local chapter.
He said he was put on the ground and told to face the wall, and a plastic bag was repeatedly placed over his head until he gasped for breath. He said he was beaten on the groin with a stun gun, and had his fingers twisted and his ankle trampled.
In all, 40 Jehovah's Witnesses were rounded up by officers from the Surgut Investigative Committee that day, according to Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman based at the organization's New York headquarters. At least seven were subjected to torture involving stun guns and suffocation, three now languish in pretrial detention, and criminal investigations have been launched against 19, Lopes said.
"Time becomes a blur in such moments, when you're experiencing terrible pain and fear of losing your life," Kayryak said.
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'We Had To Specifically Come From Moscow For This'
The arrests in Surgut are part of a widening dragnet targeting Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses, and come amid conflicting messages from the Kremlin, including President Vladimir Putin himself.
On December 11, in a meeting with his Human Rights Council, Putin suggested that government policy toward some religious groups should be more "liberal." "We probably can, and even at some point should, be much more liberal toward representatives of various religious sects," Putin said.
Returning to the topic later in the meeting, he added: "Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians too. I don't quite understand why they are persecuted. So this should be looked into. This must be done."
The U.S.-based Jehovah's Witnesses organization has long been viewed with suspicion by some governments for its members' positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general. The group says it has about 170,000 adherents in Russia.
In its 2017 ruling, the Russian Supreme Court ordered the seizure of the group's property and effectively banned worshipers from the country. Dozens have been detained in raids across the country, and 140 now face criminal charges nationwide, according to Lopes.
In Surgut, Kayryak said he himself was held until 11 p.m. that day. He was questioned about his affiliation with the Jehovah's Witnesses, and while he said he identified as one, he denied belonging to the group's illegal local chapter.
In the interview, Kayryak told RFE/RL he had never registered with the organization but maintained ties to some of its members in the city.
That afternoon and evening, Kayryak said he was twice returned to the room where his interrogator sat, and twice was tortured for failing to give an affirmative response when asked to confirm his status as a member of the group.
He said the four men overseeing the ordeal told him at one point, "We had to specifically come from Moscow for this."
Russia's Investigative Committee has dismissed the allegations of torture in Surgut. In e-mailed comments to RFE/RL, Oleg Menshikh, a spokesman for the Surgut branch of the Investigative Committee, denied that its officers had used torture against Jehovah's Witnesses in the city and said investigators recorded on video all of their interrogations on February 15 and no use of violence was noted.
"Employees of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation do not use illegal methods of conducting investigations in their work," he said.
However, reports emerged at around the same that the Investigative Committee had launched a probe into the allegations following the publication of articles detailing the instances of torture.
"We've had no complaints from Jehovah's Witnesses, but we decided to organize this investigation," a representative told the state news agency TASS.
Kayryak said he eventually broke down and gave his interrogator the answers he appeared to be demanding.
"I called myself something I am not and have never been. Basically what they wanted to hear from me," he said, referring to his forced admission that he was a member of the local Jehovah's Witnesses chapter.
He also revealed under pressure the names of several other believers in the city, something he'd refused to do before the torture began.
Kayryak and his wife are now home in Surgut. During the search, the police confiscated a laptop, two cameras, two smartphones, several diaries and notepads, and copies of the Bible in various languages.
Two days after his detainment, the interrogator called him and asked for the password to his laptop. Kayryak dictated it without a word of protest, he told RFE/RL.
He is now awaiting trial like dozens of other Jehovah's Witnesses in Surgut.
Igor Chernikov, a lawyer representing many of them, told RFE/RL that city hospitals had refused to issue documents confirming that the victims had been subjected to violence. He also said that police had forwarded each of his appeals to the same Investigative Committee accused of perpetrating the acts.
"They said: 'We're ready to treat you but we won't examine you. We will not record your injuries,'" he said. "The Investigative Committee is obviously pressuring doctors. These injuries must be recorded now because the marks are disappearing with each day. But they won't let us."
For Kayryak and others like him, the main legal problem is the vague wording of the law against extremism: Jehovah's Witnesses are banned from gathering to pray or worship but their status as believers is not illegal.
However, Chernikov believes the authorities rarely take into account this nuance. "The problem is they don't distinguish" between independent believers and members of the Jehovah's Witnesses chapter, he said. "If he says he's a Jehovah's Witness they automatically tie him to the banned local religious organization."