In the photo: Denis Peresunko, Igor Egozaryan, Sergey Melnik, Valery Rogozin
From 6 years to 6 years and 5 months in prison for the faith. Court in Volgograd Sentenced Four Jehovah's WitnessesVolgograd Region
On September 23, 2021, the Traktorozavodsky district court of Volgograd sentenced Valery Rogozin, Igor Yegozaryan, Sergey Melnik, and Denis Peresunko to long prison terms for praying and discussing the Bible with fellow believers. They were taken into custody and will be kept in pre-trial detention until the sentence comes into force.
Only the defendants and one family member each were allowed into the courtroom. Their numerous friends who were waiting outside saw a paddy wagon and a convoy with dogs approaching the court building and it was clear that the sentence would involve actual imprisonment. So during the lunch break, the defendants said goodbye to their relatives and friends.
Judge Iryna Struk sentenced Valery Rogozin to 6 years and 5 months in a penal colony, Denis Peresunko to 6 years and 3 months in a penal colony, Sergei Melnik to 6 years in a penal colony, and Igor Yegorzaryan to 6 years in a penal colony. Earlier, assistant prosecutor Anna Myagkova asked for 9 years in a penal colony for Rogozin and Peresunko, and 7 years for Igor Yegorzaryan and Sergei Melnik.
While the investigation was going on, Valery Rogozin, Sergei Melnik, and Igor Egozaryan have already spent more than 7 months behind bars. This seriously undermined Rogozin's health, and he had to undergo prolonged treatment. Denis Peresunko was in pre-trial detention for more than 5 months. At the same time, there are no victims in the case. The believers insist on their complete innocence.
Valery Rogozin, 59, is a former military pilot, who served in the army for 12 years. For many years he worked as a design engineer. Together with his wife, they raised two sons. Igor Yegozaryan, a 56-year-old construction electrician, is raising an underage son with his wife. Sergey Melnik, 49, a slinger and roofer by profession, helps his wife take care of their sick relatives. The spouses are raising three sons together, one of whom is underage. Denis Peresunko, 43, is on disability. The stress of his wife's death and criminal prosecution have aggravated his condition.
On November 22, 2019, the charges against the believers were toughened - now the investigation considered them not participants, but organizers of an extremist community. Two of them, Rogozin and Peresunko, were also charged under Part 1 of Article 282.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (financing of an extremist organization). These articles carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
The case against Valery Rogozin and three other believers was initiated on May 13, 2019. It was investigated for about 8 months by the Investigative Committee of the Volgograd region. The case went to the Traktorozavodsky district court of Volgograd on January 9, 2020.
To prove the guilt of peaceful believers in court, the prosecution questioned classified witnesses. One of them secretly recorded the worship services and stated that the unlawful activity of the defendants was to "obey God. Another secret witness accused the believers of "spiritual terrorism," although there is no such term. The witnesses were interrogated incognito because of the alleged danger to their lives and the health of declassifying their identities, but no confirmation of this was given. One undercover witness said he never heard the defendants threaten, call for violence, or overthrow the government.
In May 2020, the UN Human Rights Council's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled the criminal cases against 18 believers in Russia, including Valery Rogozin and Igor Yegozaryan, illegal.
Lawyers for the believers repeatedly alleged numerous violations during the preliminary investigation. Prosecution witnesses who appeared in court - mostly elderly - said that their testimony was falsified and their preliminary testimony contained words they had not said. One of them explicitly stated that the investigator had "made up and edited" her testimony. The defendants drew the court's attention to the fact that the prosecution deliberately focuses on questioning elderly witnesses because it is easier to confuse them and get them to testify for the investigation.
Speaking in court with his last word, Valery Rogozin emphasized: "Jehovah's Witnesses are peaceful, politically neutral people. We do not participate in protest rallies, strikes, or support any of the conflicting parties. We do not participate in military conflicts. We learned from the Bible that only God can deal with all of humanity's problems. Sergei Melnyk emphasized in his address to the court: "I have never done anything that goes against the laws of God. Moreover, I have tried to do good, to show love and justice, to take care of people. Denis Peresunko noted: "Jesus was tried and killed for bringing truth to people. I am being judged because I learned the truth that is in the Bible and discussed it with my friends. Igor Yegozarian said in his final remarks: "The whole world says that Jehovah's Witnesses cannot be extremists, that they are pacifists, that they do not take up arms and never speak against the state, they do not interfere in politics. The whole history of Jehovah's Witnesses is proof of that."
"Officially, the Russian authorities - President Vladimir Putin, the government, the Foreign Ministry - emphasize that it is not forbidden in the country to practice the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses. But courts in the regions keep putting peaceful people behind bars for long terms," says Yaroslav Sivulskiy commenting on the situation. April 2021 marked the 70th anniversary of Operation North when thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses were 'designated' as criminals and deported under very similar charges of harming the state and society. Decades later, these charges were found to be criminal, and the victims of the repression were rehabilitated and compensated by the state. Today, accusations of extremism against the Witnesses resound like clear echoes. Dozens of ongoing and past trials of believers prove that there is not a single instance of actual harm to the state and society. The siloviki view it as extremism that people continue to pray and discuss the Bible peacefully together, just as they did in Soviet times.
The prosecution consistently confused the concepts of a religious assembly and a local religious organization (LRO). The defense emphasized that no one could be held criminally liable for participating in a worship service. The position of the prosecution, as in many other cases against Russian believers, is at odds with that of the Russian Supreme Court, which has not banned Jehovah's Witnesses.