MOSCOW (Reuters) - A court in Russian-controlled Crimea jailed a Jehovah’s Witness for six years on Thursday after finding him guilty of organizing the activities of a banned extremist organization, part of a crackdown rights activists say violates religious freedom.
The court in the Crimean town of Dzhankoi explained in a statement why it had found Sergei Filatov, 47, guilty, saying he had knowingly ignored a 2017 decision from Russia’s Supreme Court which ruled the Christian denomination was an extremist organization and should disband.
Filatov is the first Jehovah’s Witness since the Supreme Court’s ruling to be convicted for practicing his religion in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and one of dozens prosecuted in similar cases by Russian authorities.
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.
Jehovah’s Witnesses say Russia’s constitution guarantees their right to exercise freedom of religion and deny wrongdoing.
Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesman for the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, condemned Filatov’s conviction in a statement.
“It is sad that the massive repression of faith, which has been unleashed by security services in dozens of regions of Russia, has reached Crimea,” said Sivulskiy, whose own father Pavel was jailed for seven years in 1959 by the Soviet authorities for printing bible literature.
“Sergei Filatov was convicted of a grave criminal offense, as a dangerous enemy of the state, for a simple family worship service. The case is obviously trumped up.”
Jarrod Lopes, a U.S.-based spokesman for the religious group, said Filatov was married with four children and would appeal against the Crimean court’s ruling.
Putin said in 2018 he did not understand why authorities were pursuing the group and called for the matter to be analyzed. But the Kremlin has said since that the group remains illegal under current legislation and has declined to confirm whether the law will be changed or not.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions. The group has about 170,000 followers in Russia, and 8 million worldwide.
Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn
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