State Department hits Russia over jailing of Jehovah's Witnesses for 'peaceful religious practice'

The State Department criticized Russian authorities Saturday over this week's jailing of six Jehovah's Witnesses for up to three-and-a-half years.

"Deeply concerned by Russian court decision to jail six Jehovah's Witnesses in Saratov for peaceful religious practice," spokesperson Morgan Ortagus wrote on Twitter. "We urge Russia to respect its citizens' rights to religious freedom and stop falsely accusing Jehovah's Witnesses of extremism."

Reuters reported that a regional court in the southwestern city of Saratov found the men guilty of taking part in activities of an extremist organization. Russia's Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that the Christian denomination was an "extremist" organization and ordered the group to disband.

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"Yes they were convicted,” a court spokeswoman announced Friday. "Punishments ranged from three years and six months down to two years (in jail).”

Danish Jehovah's Witness Dennis Christensen is escorted from a courtroom in Russia in February. (Yuriy Temirbulatov, Courtesy of Jehovah's Witnesses via AP)

Danish Jehovah's Witness Dennis Christensen is escorted from a courtroom in Russia in February. (Yuriy Temirbulatov, Courtesy of Jehovah's Witnesses via AP)

The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced discrimination for years in Russia, where the Orthodox Church is propped up by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have accused Jehovah’s Witnesses of eroding state institutions and traditional values, according to Reuters.

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More than 250 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been detained since the 2017 ban, according to the group. 41 are in detention and 23 are on house arrest.

Two of those convicted face three-and-a-half years in prison, one faces three years and three face two years.

The religion has says it has 170,000 followers in Russia and more than eight million adherents worldwide.

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In February, a court ruled that a Danish Jehovah’s Witness in Russia has to stay in prison for six years. Soon after, the religious denomination accused Russian officers of torturing its members, alleging that seven of its adherents were beaten, given electrical shocks and suffocated during interrogation.