Russia sentences Crimean man amid Kremlin crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses

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March 29 (UPI) — A Russian court in annexed-Crimea sentenced a 55-year-old man to more than six years in prison amid the Kremlin’s continued crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Judge Pavel Kryllo of the Gagarinskiy District Court in Crimea’s largest city of Sevastopol sentenced Viktor Stashevskiy to six and a half years’ imprisonment and a seven-year ban on engaging in public activities on charges of organizing activities of a banned religious organization, the Kharkiv Human Rights Group said.

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The organization said it was the steepest sentence of three handed down against members of Ukraine’s Jehovah’s Witnesses community, calling the charges illegal as they were tried in Russian courts in occupied Ukraine, where the religion is technically legal.

“Imprisoning a peaceful Christian family man like Viktor is a mockery of the rule of law,” Jarrod Lopes, spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said in a statement emailed to UPI. “It is also a travesty that he will be separated from his wife, two daughters and elderly mother whom he has been caring for.”

Russia has been cracking down on Jehovah’s Witnesses since its Supreme Court in 2017 banned and criminalized the activities of the Christian denomination as “extremist.”

The Kharkiv Human Rights Group said the prosecution had demanded seven years’ imprisonment for Stashevskiy who was detained in early June 2019 when nine homes in Sevastopol were searched.

Russia has been imposing its Jehovah’s Witness ban on occupied Crimea since November of 2018, the organization said, when Sergey Filatov was arrested during a round of searches that month in Dzhankovy.

He was sentenced March 5, 2020, to six years in jail. Artem Gerasimov of Yalta was also sentenced to six years’ imprisonment in June of that year.

“The time is long overdue to reverse the ban, remove the ‘extremist’ designation, release immediately Jehovah’s Witnesses detained for practicing their faith — including Viktor Stashevskiy — and expunge all related criminal records,” Rachel Denber, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asian division, said.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, at least six Crimeans face charges stemming from the 2017 Russian Supreme Court ruling.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has said conditions of religious freedom in Russia continue to deteriorate as it targets non-traditional religious minorities with fines, detentions and criminal charges under the name of stamping out extremism.

In February, Valentina Baranovskaya, a 69-year-old mother, became the first woman sentenced in Russia for being a practicing Jehovah’s Witness.

The Christian denomination said 51 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been jailed, 31 are under house arrest and another 451 are involved in more than 200 criminal cases.