Accessibility links

Breaking News

Watchdog

Jehovah's Witnesses have long been viewed with suspicion in Russia for their positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general.

PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATKSY, Russia -- Three members of the local branch of a Jehovah's Witnesses church have been detained in Russia's Far Eastern Kamchatka peninsula on extremism charges.

An official with the regional Investigative Committee, Yelena Matafonova told RFE/RL on August 21 that a married couple and an elderly woman from the town of Yelizovo were detained and placed in a pretrial detention on suspicion of "committing a crime linked to extremism," by participating in the activities of "a banned religious organization."

If found guilty, the trio faces up to 10 years in prison, Matafonova, said, adding that it was the first group of the Jehovah's Witnesses arrested in Russia's Far East peninsula.

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.

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.

Earlier this month, the Moscow-based Memorial human rights center said that since the Supreme Court's ruling, at least 29 members of the religious community have been detained on criminal charges in Russia, of whom 23 are in detention while others are under house arrest.

According to Memorial, the Supreme Court's ruling does not cite any instance of the violation of any laws or regulations by the Jehovah's Witnesses.

In June, advisers to Russian President Vladimir Putin have questioned the legality of criminal cases opened against the Jehovah's Witnesses, asking the Prosecutor-General's office to protect the group's freedom of belief.

Also in June, the United States called on the Russian authorities to release dozens of people it says have been identified by rights groups as political prisoners, including members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who it said had been in pretrial detention for more than a year.

On June 19, some 60 Russian writers, historians, and activists signed an appeal calling on authorities to stop prosecuting the group.

Oleh Sentsov poses for a picture at his cell in the penal colony in Labytnangi on August 9.

Supporters of jailed Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov have marked the 100th day of his hunger strike with renewed calls on Russia to release him.

A vocal opponent of Russia's 2014 takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted by a Russian court in 2015 of conspiring to commit terrorist acts.

The 42-year-old has been on a hunger strike at a penal colony in Labytnangi in Russia's northern region of Yamalo-Nenets since May. He is demanding that Russia release 64 Ukrainian citizens that he considers political prisoners.

Russian authorities are reluctant to free Sentsov, despite reports of a dramatic decline in his health and pressure from Western governments and human rights groups, which have backed the film director's contention that the charges against him were politically motivated.

On August 21, several dozen people demonstrated in front of the Russian Embassy in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, in support of the filmmaker.

Some of the participants carried signs reading, "Free Sentsov" and "Stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin."

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maryana Betsa tweeted that Kyiv demands Sentsov's immediate release.

"It is the 100th day of O. Sentsov's hunger strike. It is a scary number. Human life is the highest value. We demand that the Russian Federation immediately release Oleh," Betsa wrote.

Betsa also called on Ukraine's "partners and international organizations to increase pressure" on Moscow to release Sentsov and other Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia.

In Russia, 10 protesters were arrested by Russian police in an unsanctioned demonstration near Moscow's Griboyedov monument, according to OVD-Info, a human rights organization that monitors detentions.

The participants in the rally, who numbered more than 20, were holding Sentsov's portraits and posters calling for his release.

Elsewhere in Russia, activists from the Open Russia civic movement unfolded a big banner in the capital of the Tatarstan region, Kazan, saying, "Freedom for Sentsov, 100 days."

The banner was placed under the walls of the city's ancient fortress, known as the Kazan Kremlin.

"Freedom for Sentsov, 100 days"
"Freedom for Sentsov, 100 days"

In London, a group of demonstrators gathered outside Russia's Embassy, shouting, "Free Sentsov."

The PEN International association of writers, which organized the rally, planned to deliver "messages of support from all over the world" to the embassy and urge the Russian authorities to ensure that Sentsov is allowed to receive them in the penal colony where he is being incarcerated.

And in the Czech Republic, filmmakers said they were launching a rotating hunger strike in solidarity with their Ukrainian colleague, with seven of them participating in the first rotation.

"We'll be on hunger strike for five days, from this morning until August 25," Vit Janecek, a member of the Czech Association of Directors, Writers and Playwrights, told the AFP news agency.

"We're launching this initiative in the hope that other people will join during the next five-day cycles until the Sentsov case is resolved," he added.

And the French newspaper Le Monde carried a plea signed by dozens of figures from the world of culture also calling for Sentsov’s release, saying he "could die any minute."

Sentsov's cousin, Moscow-based journalist Natalya Kaplan, told the Associated Press news agency on August 21 that he was in intensive care in critical condition, adding that the family didn't have full information about his health.

After meeting with Sentsov at the penal colony on August 14, Zoya Svetova, a member of Russia's Presidential Advisory Council On Human Rights, told RFE/RL that the filmmaker was in "bad" health as a result of his hunger strike.

Russian human rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova said that the prison sent in a group of doctors to examine Sentsov on August 20 and they reportedly concluded that his condition was "satisfactory."

"He moves, gets up, and gets a special diet," Moskalkova added.

Russia's prison authorities had previously rejected claims about the filmmaker's worsening condition, saying that he's been given nutritional supplements.

Several governments, prominent figures, and Sentsov's family have called on Putin to pardon Sentsov, but the Kremlin said he would have to formally request a pardon himself before it could be considered.

Sentsov has said that he will not ask for a pardon because he believes he has not committed a crime.

He has also indicated that he is prepared to die of starvation to press his cause, vowing to continue the protest "to the end."

With reporting by AFP, AP, RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, and RFE/RL's Russian Service

Load more

About This Blog

"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.

Subscribe

Journalists In Trouble

RFE/RL journalists take risks, face threats, and make sacrifices every day in an effort to gather the news. Our "Journalists In Trouble" page recognizes their courage and conviction, and documents the high price that many have paid simply for doing their jobs. More

XS
SM
MD
LG