Moscow — Russian authorities have carried out dozens of raids and detained several people as they pursue a new criminal case accusing the country's Jehovah's Witnesses of extremism, the national Investigative Committee said Tuesday. The Christian denomination is suspected of illegally resuming its work in Russia despite an official ban.
The country's Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that the group, founded in the United States and claiming almost 9 million followers globally, was an "extremist" organization and ordered it to disband. The decision led to the conviction of scores of followers across the country.
Investigators said Tuesday that searches were underway in more than 20 different Russian regions in connection with the case. A video of one of the raids, posted online by the Investigative Committee (below), shows men in black balaclavas breaking through an apartment door and later bundles of Russian and Western banknotes are seen lying on a briefcase inside.
"A number of organizers and participants of the movement were identified and detained," the investigators said in a statement without elaborating.
The committee claimed that an "administrative center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" had resumed operating despite knowledge of the court ruling. It said a group of unnamed people had started a new branch in northeast Moscow in June 2019. The group is accused of holding "secret gatherings," studying "religious literature" and "recruiting new members" in the capital and other regions.
The criminal charges in the case carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
A spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses, Yaroslav Sivulskiy, told CBS News on Tuesday that at least four people had been detained by police in the raids. He denied that the group had resumed its work in Russia.
"There is no 'administrative center' existing in Russian right now," Sivulskiy said in a phone interview from Finland.
More than 400 Jehovah's Witnesses have been targeted by law enforcement agencies in Russia since the ban, dozens of whom were charged and convicted, the organization's Russian branch said on its website earlier this month. Access to the site is blocked inside Russia.
The 2017 court ruling has been widely criticized by Russian and international rights groups as unlawful discrimination against a religious minority.
According to Sivulskiy, several thousand of the country's 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses have left the country since the decision was handed down.
"We are going back to the Soviet times," he said, adding that his parents were exiled to Siberia by the Soviet authorities for being Jehovah's Witnesses.
A provincial court recently refused to release Danish citizen Dennis Christensen, a member of the group who was sentenced to six years in prison on extremism charges.
"Russia has absolutely nothing to gain from the pointless, cruel, and abusive persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses," New York-based Human Rights Watch said of Christensen's case in July.
In February 2019, seven Russian Jehovah's Witnesses said they were tortured during interrogations by security agents. Following those reports, the United States blacklisted two regional officials on Russia's Investigative Committee.
The State Department, which has repeatedly condemned Russia's treatment of the group, said the officials in the western Siberian city of Surgut had supervised the interrogations, in which at least seven Jehovah's Witnesses were allegedly subjected to suffocation, electric shocks and beatings.
Arrests of the group's members continued even after Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed as "complete nonsense" questions from the Kremlin's own human rights council about the crackdown in 2018.
"Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians, too, so I don't quite understand why persecute them," Putin said at the time.
Putin is an Orthodox Christian, and the Russian Orthodox Church is seen as the country's most politically powerful religious organization.
Russian law enforcement agencies have frequently used the country's broadly defined anti-extremism legislation to target dissenting voices, often with criminal prosecutions seen as politically motivated.