The United States denounced Russia on Thursday for passing its toughest punishment yet on Jehovah’s Witnesses, as part of the Kremlin’s assault on individuals who practise the Christian sect.
The US State Department and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom released condemning remarks after Russia sentenced Aleksey Berchuk, 45, and Dmitriy Golik, 34, to eight and seven years in jail, respectively, for coordinating extremist activities on Wednesday.
“We condemn a Russian court’s sentencing of Jehovah’s Witness Dmitriy Golik to seven years in prison and Aleksey Berchuk to eight years in prison — a new record length in Russia’s crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ peaceful religious practice,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price in a statement.
James W. Carr, USCIRF commissioner, also condemned the arrests but called on the Biden administration to hold Russia accountable.
“We urge the U.S. government to confront this brazen assault on freedom of religion or belief,” he said via Twitter.
Russia has been arresting members of the Jehovah’s Witness since its Supreme Court in 2017 banned and criminalized its activities as “extremist.”
According to the church, 58 of its members have been imprisoned in Russia and Crimea for practicing their religion with another 33 under house arrest. Russia has opened some 230 criminal cases involving more than 500 People since the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision.
According to the church, Russian officials began watching Golik in October of 2017 and filed a criminal investigation against Berchuk in June of the following year. Authorities raided the houses of seven Jehovah’s Witness families a month later and accused the two men with coordinating extremist activities.
Berchuk told the court last week that his convictions were “exclusively peaceful” with no victims, and that the prosecution failed to present any evidence to establish differently during the case.
“The fact that I read the Bible, speak of biblical topics and pray to God with fellow believers — It is sad that the prosecution considers this to be extremism,” he said, according to a copy of his statement to the court published by the Jehovah’s Witness.
After imprisoning other Jehovah’s Witnesses in recent months, Russia handed down the convictions.
Notably, a Russian court condemned Valentina Baranovskaya to two years in prison in February, making her the country’s first woman imprisoned for worshipping the faith.
The USCIRF has repeatedly condemned Russia’s attack against Jehovah’s Witnesses, recommending in April for it to be listed among the State Department’s Countries of Particular Concern over its treatment of religious minorities. It also called for sanctions to target government agencies and officials responsible.
The condemnations came only weeks after President Joe Biden conducted a high-profile meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which the former stated he pressed Putin on the Kremlin’s human rights violations.