Statistics and Overview

Jehovah’s Witnesses Under the Yoke of Repression — 2023 Overview

In 2023, the number of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses criminally prosecuted for their faith reached almost 800, and the number of searches exceeded 2,000. Cases are fabricated against the elderly, women and the disabled. More than a quarter of all prosecuted are persons over 60 years of age. By the end of the year, there were already six Jehovah’s Witness women in penal colonies. The tendency to prosecute entire families has increased. The length of imprisonment requested by prosecutors has reached 10 years. Statistics and details are included in this article.

The Year in Numbers

As of December 25, 2023, the total number of homes of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses searched is 2,058. In 2023, law enforcement officers raided 183 addresses, 43 people were detained, 15 of whom have been or are still in pretrial detention.

During the year, Russian courts issued rulings regarding 147 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 47 of whom were sentenced to imprisonment for a cumulative term of more than 257 years (the previous year 44 people were sentenced to a cumulative term of 244 years in penal colonies). Thirty-three people received sentences in penal colonies of 6 years or more. Of these, the longest term of 8 years in a penal colony was given to Dmitriy Barmakin, whose story will be discussed below. On December 22, 2023, the court sentenced Aleksandr Rumyantsev from Moscow to 7.5 years in penal colony (Sean Pike, a citizen of Guyana, and Eduard Sviridov from Moscow, are in the same case and were sentenced to 7 and 6.5 years in a penal colony, respectively). Astrakhan residents Rinat Kiramov, Sergey Korolev and Sergey Kosyanenko, as well as Aleksandr Skvortsov from Taganrog and Evgeniy Bushev from Chelyabinsk received 7 years of imprisonment. In the Bushev case, it took the court just five sessions to conclude that talking about a Bible topic is such a serious crime. Later, it turned out that an officer of the National Guard had participated in the conversation, pretending to be interested in the Bible.

On December 19, 2023, a court in Novosibirsk sentenced Marina Chaplykina to 4 years in a penal colony. She became the sixth woman from among Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses to receive a prison sentence for their faith.

Eight of Jehovah’s Witnesses were released from prison this past year. Seventy-nine people remain in penal colonies.

"The believers trials do not end with being released from the penal colony," explains Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses. "The believers continue to serve additional punishments. For example, during a period appointed by the court, they cannot leave their place of residence. An electronic tracking bracelet is put on the ankle of some for many months, by which the authorities track the location of the person. This device must not be removed. After serving their sentences many are forbidden from working in certain areas, such as education."

The total number of criminal cases initiated against believers since 2017 has reached 376. The defendants amount to 789 people; 444 believers were convicted, 141 of whom received imprisonment. In all cases, there are no victims, actual crimes or evidence of illegal actions. The cases are initiated for ordinary religious activities: praying, reading the Bible, singing religious songs, etc.

Most of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are prosecuted for their faith are included in the list of extremists and terrorists maintained by the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring). The state imposes a number of serious economic restrictions on those who are listed on it; for example, their bank accounts are blocked, which makes it difficult to receive salaries, pensions and complete other transactions. At the time of publication of this article, there are 521 believers on the list, 72 of whom were added to the list in 2023.

Terms are Breaking Records

In Magadan, the case of 13 believers, including Ivan Puyda, the son and grandson of Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been repressed under Soviet rule, reached its conclusion. Now he too could receive a lengthy sentence – 10 years. That is how much the prosecutor requested in the closing arguments on November 24, 2023.

If Puyda gets 10 years in prison, it will be a unprecedented record in the cases of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses. Currently, the maximum term in a penal colony is 8 years, and five believers are serving this: Aleksey Berchuk, Rustam Diarov, Yevgeniy Ivanov and Sergey Klikunov.

On December 4, 2023, in Irkutsk, the prosecutor requested terms ranging from 3 to 7 years for a group of nine Jehovah’s Witnesses, the longest for Yaroslav Kalin, Nikolay Martynov, Aleksey Solnechny and Sergey Kosteyev. Yaroslav Kalin also comes from a family of those repressed for their faith. Kalin’s lawyer said: "My client is being tried for the same thing for which his parents were exiled to Siberia, more than 70 years ago." Ironically, Kalin’s parents have been officially exonerated, but their son is now being tried for the same "crime".

New Regions

In 2023, the territory affected by prosecutions has expanded. In February, the first searches in the Leningrad Region took place in the cities of Kingisepp and Slantsy, five people were detained and a criminal case was initiated. On April 4, 2023, searches were carried out for the first time in St. Petersburg.

At the end of February, searches in at least three addresses took place in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. Kishta Tutinova, 62, was detained, and after 2 days behind bars she was placed under house arrest.

In total, Jehovah’s Witnesses are already being prosecuted in 74 regions of the Russian Federation.

Vladimir Piskarev, Vladimir Melnik and Artur Putintsev were kept in a cage during their trial in Oryol
Vladimir Piskarev, Vladimir Melnik and Artur Putintsev were kept in a cage during their trial in Oryol
Aleksandr Skortsov and Valeriy Tibiy did not lose heart despite unjust prosecution
Aleksandr Skortsov and Valeriy Tibiy did not lose heart despite unjust prosecution
Konstantin Sannikov in the so-called "aquarium" — an enclosure where usually especially dangerous criminals are held during the trial
Konstantin Sannikov in the so-called "aquarium" — an enclosure where usually especially dangerous criminals are held during the trial
During the announcement of the verdict, the bailiff handcuffs the seriously ill Vladimir Balabkin
During the announcement of the verdict, the bailiff handcuffs the seriously ill Vladimir Balabkin
Sergey Klimov with his wife immediately after his release from the penal colony
Sergey Klimov with his wife immediately after his release from the penal colony
Defendants in the case of Tchaikovsky and others in Moscow are taken into custody after the verdict is announced
Defendants in the case of Tchaikovsky and others in Moscow are taken into custody after the verdict is announced
Aleksandr Nikolayev with his wife and daughters after his release from the penal colony
Aleksandr Nikolayev with his wife and daughters after his release from the penal colony
Convicted residents of Gukovo communicate via video call from the pretrial detention center with the group of supporters that came to the cassation hearing
Convicted residents of Gukovo communicate via video call from the pretrial detention center with the group of supporters that came to the cassation hearing
On the day of Yuriy Savelyev’s release from the penal colony, he was met by a large group of supporters
On the day of Yuriy Savelyev’s release from the penal colony, he was met by a large group of supporters
Rustam Seidkuliev’s wife and friends are taking pictures with him after his release from the penal colony in Saratov
Rustam Seidkuliev’s wife and friends are taking pictures with him after his release from the penal colony in Saratov
From left to right: Sergey Kosyanenko, Rinat Kiramov and Sergey Korolev behind bars in the courtroom
From left to right: Sergey Kosyanenko, Rinat Kiramov and Sergey Korolev behind bars in the courtroom
Muscovites Anatoliy Marunov, Sergey Tolokonnikov and Roman Mareyev were sentenced to long terms for their faith
Muscovites Anatoliy Marunov, Sergey Tolokonnikov and Roman Mareyev were sentenced to long terms for their faith
In Surgut, friends came to the courthouse to support their convicted fellow believers, on the day of the verdict. Outdoor temperature was -29°C
In Surgut, friends came to the courthouse to support their convicted fellow believers, on the day of the verdict. Outdoor temperature was -29°C
Marina married Sergey Shulyarenko, convicted for his faith, right in the penal colony
Marina married Sergey Shulyarenko, convicted for his faith, right in the penal colony

Prosecution of the Elderly and Disabled

Almost 26% of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been prosecuted for their faith since 2017 (205 people) are over 60 years old. Criminal cases were initiated against 17 believers in this category in 2023. The oldest of them is 85 years old (the youngest is 19 years old).

Law enforcement officers and judges are not troubled by the age, serious illnesses or disabilities of those they accuse. So, on September 13 of this year, a court in the Amur Region sentenced Vladimir Balabkin, 71, suffering from cancer, to 4 years in a penal colony (the prosecutor had requested 2.5 times longer). Immediately after the verdict, he was taken into custody. About three months later, on December 19, 2023, the court of appeal replaced the sentence with a a 1-year suspended sentence, and the believer was released.

On September 14, 2023, the Maykop City Court sent 68-year-old Nikolay Voishchev to the prison colony. Even before his arrest, he was diagnosed with a tumor that required immediate treatment. He still needs medical care while in prison, but is not recieviing it.

Andrey Vlasov, a 54-year-old disabled person of group II, continues to serve his sentence for his faith in the Novosibirsk Region. He suffers from serious illnesses, including deforming arthrosis of both hip joints, which makes it difficult for him to move around. But both the appeal and the cassation court upheld the conviction.

Repression of Entire Families

By the end of the year, more than 70 families in 35 regions of the Russian Federation had become easy prey for law enforcement officers, for whom this is often an easy way to improve their performance and move up the career ladder. In some cases, husband and wife were sent to prison at the same time, for example, Yelena and Georgiy Nikulin from Saransk. Both received more than four years in prison.

"Other family members who are not under investigation are also subjected to direct or indirect pressure. After the searches, the security forces interrogate them, threaten to imprison a relative or they themselves if the interrogated person does not begin to give the necessary information against the relative and his fellow believers. Simply put, they are offered to be agents of infiltration, to conduct covert audio and video filming of how believers discuss Bible teachings, pray and sing religious songs together, in order to later call it "the activities of a banned religious organization," says Yaroslav Sivulskiy. "Another way of indirect pressure on relatives is by denying visits to imprisoned family members."

Reversal of Acquittals

One of the significant trends of 2023 was the abolition of acquittals of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This happened on July 6, 2023, with the case of Aleksandr Pryanikov and Venera and Darya Dulova, the case reached the Supreme Court, where the acquittal was overturned, although before that the Sverdlovsk Regional Court had twice overturned convictions.

The acquittal verdict was overturned on November 20, 2023, in the case of Ivan Sorokin and Andrey Zhukov in Yugorsk, Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Region.

Dmitriy Barmakin from Vladivostok became the first Russian Jehovah’s Witness to be acquitted in a criminal case for his faith on November 22, 2021. But this sentence lasted until April 27, 2023, when the same court, the Pervorechensky District Court of Vladivostok, sentenced the believer to eight years in prison. However, later on August 8, 2023, the Primorsky Regional Court overturned this decision and sent the case for review.

Aleksey Khabarov from Porkhov, Pskov Region, who was initially acquitted, was sentenced at the third trial on October 25, 2023, to two years and six months in a prison colony. The appeal shortened the period by only two months.

The Supreme Court is Not Its Own Decree

It seems paradoxical that acquittals of Jehovah’s Witnesses are consistently overturned by the Supreme Court, whose position is that worship in itself cannot be considered a crime. In the cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is the only corpus delicti.

On October 28, 2021, the Plenum of the Supreme Court published a ruling stating: "If a court adopts and enters into force a decision to liquidate or ban the activities of a public or religious association or other organization in connection with the implementation of extremist activities, subsequent actions of persons that are not related to the continuation or resumption of the activities of the relevant extremist organization and consist solely in exercising their right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, including through individual or joint confession of religion, worship or other religious rites and ceremonies, in themselves, if they do not contain signs of extremism, do not constitute a crime" (emphasis added).

However, in practice, some judges of the Supreme Court do not consider it necessary to follow it’s own position. They simply repeat the prosecution’s narrative that any collective practice by Jehovah’s Witnesses is "extremist. "

In total, the Supreme Court has already overturned two acquittals of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In addition to the above-mentioned case of Pryanikov and the Dulovs, a similar decision was made on December 15, 2022 in the case of the Bazhenovs and Vera Zolotova.

Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights

On January 31, 2023, the European Court of Human Rights considered seven complaints by Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia related to the events from 2010 to 2014. In all of them, the court sided with the applicants and ordered them to pay compensation in the amount of 345,773 euros and another 5,000 euros as legal costs.

This is the second judgement of the ECHR in the case of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses in the last two years. In the summer of 2022, the ECHR also acquitted believers in a larger lawsuit related to the illegal liquidation of all legal entities of the Witnesses and the seizure of their property. The total amount of compensation under this decision exceeds 63 million euros.

Alas, so far the decisions of the ECHR have no visible impact on the practice of the Russian law enforcement system. The Russian authorities are in no hurry to pay compensation to acquitted believers, and continue to sentence them to long prison terms.

Exactly on the day of the decision of the ECHR, June 7, 2022, the State Duma of the Russian Federation adopted laws under an accelerated procedure, according to which ECHR judgments issued after March 15, 2022 are not enforceable in Russia.

The Case of the Eighteen in Surgut, "Faith is a Crime, Torture is Heroism"

In 2023, a high-profile case in Surgut came to the finish line, which received wide publicity due to the torture of believers. The case against 18 men and one woman from Surgut, including a man whom the investigation mistakenly mistook for one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, has been dragging on since February 2019. Seven defendants went through severe torture during interrogation, and one of them, Timofey Zhukov, was forcibly placed in a psychiatric hospital and later obtained compensation for this.

The situation around torture in Surgut was widely covered in the Russian media, believers met with the Human Rights Ombudsman for the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region and employees of the offices of the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation, conferences were held with the participation of human rights defenders.

In November 2023, the prosecutor requested strict terms for believers, up to nine-and-a-half years in prison for Sergey Loginov.

On December 5, 2023, all the defendants in the Surgut case were convicted with suspended sentences ranging from four to seven years. The longest sentences of seven years were received by Sergey Loginov and Timofey Zhukov.

At the same time, not a single criminal case has been initiated by the fact of the torture of the believers. Moreover, later the head of the investigative department of the Investigative Committee, where Jehovah’s Witnesses were tortured, Vladimir Ermolaev and his subordinate Sergey Bogoderov received awards, and the soldiers of the Russian Guard who participated in the operation were given promotions.

"Is There Any Success in Intimidating Jehovah’s Witnesses?"

Sergey Ivanenko, Ph.D., a religious scholar who was present as an expert in 14 criminal trials against Jehovah’s Witnesses in different regions of Russia, describes his impressions in his book "About People Who Endure Persecution" published in 2023: "Jehovah’s Witnesses… believe that it is their religious duty to preach Christianity to law enforcement officers, judges, as well as prisoners… Is there any success in intimidating Jehovah’s Witnesses? No, there is not. They continue to preach, help each other, and support prisoners of conscience. They believe that persecution strengthens faith in Jehovah, and strong faith brings peace of mind. Those who know the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses understand that they have endured severe persecution and have not departed from their faith. Nor are they frightened by persecution in modern Russia."