The State Department on Wednesday denounced Russia’s crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses in a blistering response to reports that a Russian court has sentenced a female Witness to six years in prison for practicing her faith.
“The United States condemns Russia’s continued crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other peaceful religious minorities, in the strongest possible terms,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email to The Washington Times.
The statement was in response to reports that a court in Astrakhan, a city in the southern part of Russia, had sentenced Anna Safranova, 56, to six years in prison on Tuesday.
Ms. Safranova was convicted of “extremist activities” — the Russian criminal code’s category applied to Jehovah’s Witness activities, the religious group said, adding that her sentence is the longest a female member has received there since 2017.
Her imprisonment “would be yet another example of why Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken designated Russia as a Country of Particular Concern for its serious violations of religious freedom in November 2021. The United States affirms that, as a matter of human rights, all people are entitled to believe, or not to believe, according to the dictates of their own conscience,” the spokesperson wrote.
The Russian Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom joined the State Department in condemning Russia’s latest action against members of the Christian group.
“Russia’s ongoing persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is accelerating at an alarming rate,” Commissioner James W. Carr said Wednesday in a statement.
The criticism of Russian religious persecution comes amid rising concerns that Russia will invade neighboring Ukraine. The U.S. and its allies have sent military aid to Ukraine and threatened sanctions against Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ms. Safranova’s conviction and sentencing follow a spate of imprisonments of Witnesses in Russia this month.
On Jan. 19, a judge in the Seversk City Court of Russia’s Tomsk Region sentenced Yalchin Badalov, 68, to three years in a penal colony for “engaging in extremist activities,” including peaceful worship and Bible study meetings.
The next day, the Seversk court sentenced Yevgeniy Korotun and Andrey Kolesnichenko to seven- and four-year prison terms, respectively, for their activities as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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In October, the court in Astrakhan imposed sentences against four Jehovah’s Witnesses that observers said were longer than those given for rape or kidnapping.
Initially allowed to freely operate following the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the last century, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned in 2017 as an extremist organization, and the Russian Supreme Court ordered its entities liquidated. The group says it operates in more than 200 nations.