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A Jehovah Witnesses book in Russian (file photo)

Officials from the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization say Russian law enforcement officers have carried out “mass searches” on members’ homes in the Urals region of Orenburg and in the Far Eastern city of Birobidzhan.

Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York, said on May 17 that 150 law enforcement personnel raided more than 20 adherents’ homes in Birobidzhan, the capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region.

The raids came after searches had been carried out on May 16 in the Orenburg region near the border with Kazakhstan in which 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses were questioned and three were taken into custody, Lopes said.

The spokesman said a criminal case had been initiated against an adherent of the Christian sect, Alam Aliyev, and that a trial was expected on May 18.

Russia’s Supreme Court in July 2017 upheld a ruling that the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be considered an extremist organization, effectively banning the denomination from the country.

The original ruling, issued in April 2017, was the first time an entire registered religious organization had been prohibited under Russian law.

Long viewed with suspicion in Russia for their positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general, the Jehovah’s Witnesses -- which claim some 170,000 adherents in Russia and 8 million worldwide -- are among several denominations that have come under increasing pressure in recent years.

The denomination was granted official registration in Russia in 1992 and spread rapidly throughout the former Soviet Union.

Russia's treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses has raised concerns from governments and religious organizations in the West.

“The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said after the Supreme Court ruling last year.

Journalist Kirill Vyshinsky speaks during a court hearing in Kherson on May 17.

A Ukrainian court has ordered the head of a major Russian state news agency's branch in Ukraine held for two months on charges of high treason in a case that drew angry criticism from Moscow and expressions of concern from media watchdogs.

The Kherson City Court in Ukraine’s south ruled on May 17 that the director of RIA Novosti Ukraine, Kirill Vyshinsky, be held until July 13 pending investigation of the charges against him.

Vyshinsky was detained in Kyiv on May 15 by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), and his apartment and the news outlet's office were searched. He was later transferred to Kherson.

The SBU accused RIA Novosti Ukraine of participating in a "hybrid information war" waged by Russia against Ukraine.

SBU officials said Vyshinsky, who has dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship, received financial support from Russia via other media companies registered in Ukraine in order to disguise links between RIA Novosti Ukraine and Russian state media giant Rossia Segodnya.

The case has sparked a fresh dispute between Kyiv and Moscow, with the Russian Foreign Ministry calling Vyshinsky’s arrest an act of “blatant arbitrariness” and an attack on freedom of speech, the ministry said in a May 17 statement.

The OSCE's representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, called on Ukrainian authorities to “refrain from imposing unnecessary limitations on the work of foreign journalists.”

The U.S. State Department said Washington shares Ukraine's concern about Russian propaganda but added that Ukraine must ensure it abides by the law, including international human rights law.

Tensions between Moscow and Kyiv have risen sharply since Russia seized Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014 and threw its support behind separatists in eastern Ukraine, helping start a war that has killed more than 10,300 people.

Ukraine's pro-Western government is wary of Russian media outlets, accusing Moscow of distributing disinformation aimed at sowing tension and destabilizing the country. Kyiv has banned more than a dozen Russian television channels since 2014, accusing them of spreading propaganda.

With reporting by RIA, UNIAN, TASS, AFP, AP, Interfax, and pravda.ua

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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