MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Wednesday sentenced two Jehovah’s Witnesses to seven and eight years in jail on extremism charges, with the latter sentence the longest ever handed to one of the group’s adherents in the country.
The verdict, issued by a court in the far eastern city of Blagoveshchensk, comes amid an ongoing crackdown on the group, which Russia branded extremist and banned from operating in the country in 2017.
The defendants, identified by the group as Alexei Berchuk and Dmitry Golik, were found guilty of organising the activities of an extremist organisation. Both maintain their innocence and were under house arrest prior to their convictions.
Yaroslav Sivulsky, spokesperson for the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, said in a statement that Berchuk’s eight-year sentence marked “a new record in the cruelty of sentencing peaceful believers”.
Russia’s Supreme Court ruled that the group was an “extremist” organisation and ordered it to disband, a decision that was followed by a crackdown that has seen dozens of adherents detained and hundreds hit with criminal charges.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.
Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.
(Reporting by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Alex Richardson)