Jehovah's Witnesses report being tortured by authorities in Russia as the country cracks down on members convicted of "extremism" with more and more arrests, the religious group said Friday.
Mikhail and Yelena Popov were sentenced to fines close to $10,000 for engaging in "extremist activities related to their membership in the Jehovah's Witnesses." Another member, Vadim Kustenko, whose home in southern Siberian city of Chita was raided by police, said he was beaten and tasered by men who identified as officers of Russia's National Guard, The Associated Press reports.
“They handcuffed him, put a hat on his head and over his eyes and drove him away in an unknown direction,” Kustenko's lawyer, Artur Ganin, told the AP.
He said they brought him to a forest, where they choked, beat and tasered him in an attempt to get a confession.
“He is currently in custody — in pain and worried about his family because he was threatened that something could happen to his wife," Ganin said.
Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses world headquarters in the United States, said the group is "greatly disturbed" by a growing list of members reportedly being tortured.
“It’s difficult to comprehend that such barbarism persists in a modern country with a constitution that promises freedom of religion," Lopes said in a statement Friday.
Since Jehovah's Witnesses were officially banned in 2017, the Kremlin has continued to use extremism laws to crack down on opposition activists and religious minorities, including putting 200 on a list of "Persons Involved in Extremism or Terrorism," effectively cutting them off the from the country's financial system.
Of the hundreds of members that have been subject to raids, arrests, and persecution, 28 have been convicted, nine of whom have been sentenced to prison, and more than 300 people are under criminal investigation.
This crackdown continues, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's promise to look into “this complete nonsense."
“Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians, too, so I don't quite understand why persecute them," Putin said in 2018 at a meeting with the Presidential Council for Human Rights.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.