Court in Crimea jails second Jehovah's Witness for six years

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A court in Russian-controlled Crimea jailed a Jehovah’s Witness for six years on Thursday after finding him guilty of belonging to an organisation banned in Russia since 2017, according to a local human rights group.

Crimean Human Rights Group said in a statement that Artem Gerasimov had become the second Jehovah’s Witness to be convicted for practicing his religion in Crimea, following the decision by the Crimean Supreme Court, and was one of dozens to be prosecuted in similar cases by Russian authorities.

The court did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

In a similar case in March, Sergei Filatov was found guilty of knowingly ignoring a 2017 ruling by Russia’s Supreme Court that the Christian denomination was an extremist organisation and should disband.

“Today’s ruling by the Crimean Supreme Court brings religious persecution to a new level of cruelty,” said Jarrod Lopes, spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“We hope that senior officials in Russia will soon correct the injustice being doled out in their local courts and that judges in Crimea will follow suit.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.

Jehovah’s Witnesses say Russia’s constitution guarantees their right to exercise freedom of religion and deny wrongdoing but Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values.

Putin said in 2018 he did not understand why authorities were pursuing the group and called for the matter to be analysed.

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.

Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Alexandra Hudson