Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Russian law enforcement authorities have “dramatically escalated the nationwide persecution” of Jehovah’s Witnesses over the past year.
“The numbers of house raids and people under criminal investigation have more than doubled, and 32 Jehovah’s Witnesses worshipers are behind bars for peacefully practicing their faith,” the New York-based watchdog said in a statement on January 9.
The statement said that “at least 313 people are facing charges, are on trial, or have been convicted of criminal ‘extremism’ for engaging in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities, or are suspects in such cases.”
About two-thirds of them found out about their status as suspect or accused in 2019, it said.
HRW said authorities have carried out at least 780 house raids since 2017 in dozens of Russian cities -- more than half of them last year.
Eighteen people were convicted in 2019, nine of whom received prison sentences ranging from 2 to 6 years, for such activities as participating in prayer meetings.
Russia banned the religious group in April 2017 and deemed it an "extremist organization."
HRW said the authorities should reverse the ban and remove the “extremist” designation, which it said “blatantly violates” Russia’s obligations to respect and protect religious freedom and freedom of association.
They should allow Jehovah’s Witnesses to freely practice their faith, release those detained immediately, drop any outstanding charges, expunge all related criminal records, the watchdog said.