By Victoria Arnold
Of 52 people given jail sentences on “extremism” charges for exercising freedom of religion or belief, 20 are serving their sentences in prison, 12 awaiting appeal, 2 were deported after completing their jail term and 16 have been released from prison but remain under restrictions or supervision. Two who have completed their jail terms have left Russia and are therefore no longer subject to the post-prison restrictions. Post-prison restrictions on 46-year-old prisoner of conscience Aleksey Berchuk are due to end on 27 November 2038, when he would be 63.
Of those given jail sentences on “extremism” charges for exercising freedom of religion or belief, 20 are serving jail terms, 12 are awaiting appeal, two have been deported after completing prison terms and 16 are under the restrictions and supervision that last many years after a prison term is completed. Two who have completed their jail terms have left Russia and are therefore no longer subject to the post-prison restrictions.
A total of 52 people have been given jail terms under the Extremism Law since 2015 for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of religion and belief (listed at the foot of this article). Of this total:
1) Sentences have entered legal force: 20 people (19 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1 Muslim);
2) Sentenced to imprisonment – detained or under house arrest awaiting appeal: 12 people (12 Jehovah’s Witnesses);
3) Deported following imprisonment: 2 people (2 Jehovah’s Witnesses);
4) Released but under restrictions/supervision: 16 people (12 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 4 Muslims);
5) Left Russia: 2 people (2 Muslims).
Courts in Russian-annexed Crimea and Sevastopol have also sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims to imprisonment for exercising their freedom of religion and belief.
Serving jail terms
Thirty-two people convicted on extremism charges for exercising their right to freedom of religion and belief are currently serving prison sentences or are detained awaiting appeal – 31 Jehovah’s Witnesses and one Muslim prosecuted for studying the works of Said Nursi.
A further 20 have now been released, either after completing their prison sentences or because they had already served the time in detention. Of the 20, 16 remain under some form of restrictions, while two Muslims have left Russia, and two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were deprived of Russian citizenship have been deported to Uzbekistan and Ukraine.
All but one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sentenced to imprisonment were prosecuted as a direct result of the Supreme Court’s 2017 liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witness Administrative Centre and its subsidiaries as “extremist organisations”, and its prohibition of their activities nationwide.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have frequently argued that this did not amount to a ban on holding or practising Jehovah’s Witness beliefs, but investigators, prosecutors, and judges have almost invariably taken collective prayer, hymn singing, and Bible study to be evidence of the “continuation of the activities of an extremist organisation”.
Recent convictions have included those of three men in Astrakhan who received eight-year prison terms on 25 October, the joint longest sentences yet handed down to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Olga Ivanova, tried alongside them, received the longest term yet given to a woman (three years and six months). On 30 June 2021, Jehovah’s Witness Aleksey Berchuk from Blagoveshchensk had also been sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment; his fellow defendant Dmitry Golik received seven years, later reduced on appeal.
In November 2021, Dmitry Barmakin became the first Jehovah’s Witness to be found not guilty under Criminal Code Article 282.2 (“continuing the activities of a banned extremist organisation”) when a Vladivostok court acquitted him on the basis of recent amendments to the Supreme Court’s decree on the application of the Extremism Law.
What wider impact these amendments might have on the prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims who read Nursi’s works remains unclear. Prosecutors are challenging Barmakin’s acquittal.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims who study the works of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi are most frequently prosecuted under Criminal Code:
– Article 282.2 for “organising” (Part 1, possible prison term of 6 to 10 years), or “participating in” (Part 2, 2 to 6 years), “the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”. The majority of convictions have been under this Article;
– Article 282.2, Part 1.1 (“Inclination, recruitment or other involvement of a person in an extremist organisation”) (4 to 8 years);
– and Article 282.3, Part 1 (“Financing extremist activity”) (3 to 8 years).
People convicted under these Articles have also received suspended sentences and fines (see forthcoming article).
More than 540 Jehovah’s Witnesses remain under investigation, are on trial, or have been convicted for continuing to meet for prayer and Bible study after the 2017 ban. A total of 150 people have now received sentences, including 17 fines, 89 suspended sentences, and 44 prison terms. Two other Jehovah’s Witnesses have been convicted of “continuing the activities” of the local Jehovah’s Witness religious organisation in Oryol, which was liquidated as extremist in 2016, before the nationwide ban. One of them – Danish citizen Dennis Christensen – has been imprisoned.
No trials are currently underway of Muslims who meet to study the writings of Said Nursi, but seven people are thought to be facing prosecution in the Republics of Dagestan and Tatarstan.
Nakiya Sharifullina, a 63-year-old teacher from Tatarstan who received a suspended sentence under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 1 on 31 August 2021, is challenging her conviction. Prosecutors have also lodged an appeal “in view of the leniency of the punishment”, spokesperson Ruslan Galiyev of the Tatarstan Republic Prosecutor’s Office told Forum 18 on 29 November. Both appeals are due to be heard at the Supreme Court of the Tatarstan Republic on 17 December.
Currently behind bars
Twenty people – 19 Jehovah’s Witnesses and one Muslim prosecuted for studying Nursi’s works – are currently serving jail sentences, their convictions having entered legal force after unsuccessful appeals. They include one woman – 70-year-old Valentina Baranovskaya – who is also the oldest Jehovah’s Witness yet to be imprisoned and the first to receive a prison term under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 2; a court refused her application for early release on grounds of ill health on 18 October 2021.
As first-time offenders, these people are incarcerated in general-regime prison camps (ispravitelniye kolonii, correctional colonies) (except for three whose appeal has only just taken place and who therefore remain in detention). These are usually located a long way from prisoners’ homes, sometimes several thousand kilometres. In some cases, the Federal Prison Service (FSIN) may have an individual transferred through several detention centres across the country before they reach their final destination.
Twelve more Jehovah’s Witnesses remain in detention awaiting appeal. They include Dmitry Terebilov, who is the only Jehovah’s Witness who will serve his sentence in a strict-regime prison camp (if his appeal is unsuccessful). Before he became a Jehovah’s Witness, he had been convicted of drug-related offences; if a person is convicted of another offence while they still have an active criminal record (sudimost), they may be imprisoned under a harsher regime.
Released but still under restrictions
The Jehovah’s Witnesses who received the earliest jail sentences after the nationwide ban have now been released. Of these six – convicted together in Saratov in September 2019 – two have been deported and four have returned home. Those who remain in Russia – as well as four Muslims who read Nursi’s works who have also completed their prison terms – are now under various restrictions (two other Muslims left the country after release).
These include restrictions on freedom (part of the original sentence, applicable for a set period after release), bans on engaging in particular activities or holding particular positions (also part of the original sentence, applicable for a set period after release), and administrative supervision (imposed by a court at the request of prison authorities or police, and beginning after the period of restrictions on freedom is over).
A period of restrictions on freedom is compulsory for those sentenced to imprisonment under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Parts 1, 1.1, or 2. A ban on particular activities/positions is compulsory only for those imprisoned under Part 1.
Administrative supervision for the full duration of sudimost is also compulsory for people convicted under certain Articles of the Criminal Code, including Article 282.2 and 282.3 (which have a sudimost period of eight years).
These restrictive measures also apply to those people who were handed a prison sentence but released from the courtroom or shortly after conviction as they had already served the duration of their sentences in detention or under house arrest. There are eight individuals currently in this category, all Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On 22 November 2021, Pervorechensky District Court in Vladivostok found Dmitry Barmakin not guilty of “organising the activities of a banned extremist organisation”, the first time a Jehovah’s Witness has been acquitted since the nationwide ban.
Barmakin’s acquittal has not, however, entered legal force, as prosecutors submitted an appeal against it on 1 December 2021. Barmakin and his lawyers now have until 20 December 2021 to lodge their counter-arguments. The appeal will be heard at Primorye Regional Court, but no hearing date is yet known.
On 28 October 2021, the Supreme Court issued amendments to its 2011 decree “On judicial practice in criminal cases concerning extremism offences”, which instructs judges on how to apply the Extremism Law. The amendments direct judges to ascertain a defendant’s “specific actions”, their motivation, and “the significance [of these actions] for the continuation or resumption of [a banned organisation]’s activities”, rather than rely on generalised claims.
The judge in Barmakin’s case noted that “the motives for committing these crimes [under Criminal Code Article 282.2] are subject to proof”, adding that “such motives in this case have not been proven”. He decided that Barmakin “must be acquitted due to the absence of a crime in [his] actions”.
The amendments have not, however, resulted in acquittal for other Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since they came into force, courts have convicted a further six people (three of whom received fines, and three – suspended sentences) and upheld nine earlier guilty verdicts.
On 6 December, however, after a nine-month trial, Zelenogorsk City Court returned the case against Aleksandr Alekseyevich Kabanov (born 16 August 1960) to prosecutors because of insufficient evidence, according to the court website. Two Jehovah’s Witnesses have also succeeded in having their cases returned for re-examination. On 26 November 2021, Pskov Regional Court sent Aleksey Nikolayevich Khabarov’s (born 15 February 1975) case back for re-trial in the first-instance court, while on 24 November, the 8th Cassational Court ruled that Yury Savelyov’s appeal should be re-examined. Whether these decisions were influenced by the amendments is unclear.
The only other Jehovah’s Witnesses to be acquitted were charged with different extremism-related offences unrelated to (and dating from before) the liquidation of the Administrative Centre and the nationwide ban on its activities.
Raids on Jehovah’s Witness homes continue
The Investigative Committee, the FSB security service, and the Interior Ministry’s Centre for Countering Extremism continue to raid Jehovah’s Witness homes, usually accompanied by armed personnel of the National Guard (Rosgvardiya). Recent incidents have included, on 26 November, a raid on six households in Zheleznovodsk (Stavropol Region), after which investigators opened a criminal case against 82-year-old Zinaida Minenko, who is now under travel restrictions.
On 30 November, as part of an investigation in Irkutsk, officers raided the home of 33-year-old Denis Sarazhakov in the village of Askiz (Khakasiya Republic) and that of 34-year-old Igor Popov in Mezhdurechensk (Kemerovo Region). Both men were transported over 1500km to Irkutsk to be placed in detention. They appear to be implicated in a criminal case opened in October by the Irkutsk Region Investigative Committee against seven Irkutsk Jehovah’s Witnesses.
During initial raids in Irkutsk on 4 October, National Guard troops tortured several people. Under the United Nations (UN) Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Russia is obliged both to take into custody any person suspected on good grounds of having committed torture “or take other legal measures to ensure his [sic] presence”, and also to try them under criminal law which makes “these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature”. No arrests or criminal cases are known to have been launched against those who inflicted the torture.