Navalny backers see cautionary tale in Russian raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses

The decision by a Moscow court to declare Alexei Navalny’s nationwide political organisation as “extremist” adds the group to a list associated with terrorist organisations such as al-Qaida and Islamic State.

But for a guide to how Russia could treat Navalny’s supporters, a better example is the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a non-violent religious group that has felt the full extent of Russia’s law on extremism.

For an estimated 175,000 Russian members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which Russia has decried as a dangerous cult, the daily reality has become the threat of mass arrests, video surveillance and long prison terms. Thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses have fled the country as a result.

In a note published on Wednesday, Navalny vowed a reorganisation to protect his supporters while preserving his movement’s ideals. “We are not a name, a piece of paper or an office,” he wrote. “We are a group of people who unite and organise Russian citizens who are against corruption, for honest courts and the equality of all before the law … We will change. Evolve. Adapt. But we will not retreat from our goals and ideas.”

Both organisations have suspended operations. In recent interviews, Navalny’s top aides pointed to the experience of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cautionary tale of what could befall their own members if they did not.

“If we leave everything the way it is then without question there will be mass criminal cases against all the members of our headquarters,” said Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally currently in Europa, in a recent interview. “After the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we’ve seen that they have the capacity and desire to do that.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially declared an extremist organisation in 2017, but regional authorities had begun raiding church meetings and arresting parishioners years earlier, using wiretaps, undercover agents and secret witnesses to collect evidence on the group.

In 2015, 16 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the city of Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, were charged with extremism after police infiltrated and filmed their prayer meetings. It was one of the first of recent mass trials against the group, which have become increasingly common as police arrest whole congregations during raids.

In 2019, seven members of the group in Surgut said they had been tortured using electric shocks and suffocation by members of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s main investigative agency. The US later banned two Russian investigators from Surgut from entering its territory for “gross human rights abuses”.

In a trial in the Urals city of Perm last month, police were said to have installed secret video cameras in a banya, or Russian bathhouse, that was being used by members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a baptismal.

What at first appeared to be local initiatives to crush certain chapters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have grown into a nationwide crackdown, with prosecutions ongoing in more than 60 of Russia’s 85 federal subjects.

Since 2017, meer as 100 Jehovah’s Witness have been sentenced for proselytising or meeting with prayer groups, including more than 25 who have been sentenced to prison, some for as long as seven and a half years.

Police have begun charging members of the group under Russia’s tough anti-extremism legislation, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence for organisers of groups deemed extremist, eight years for recruitment or financing, and six years for participation. Members of Navalny’s organisation could face similar penalties if convicted of continuing to work with his banned Anti-Corruption Foundation or regional headquarters.

Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as old as 70 have been sentenced to prison. In a courtroom in February, 70-year-old Valentina Baranovskaya complained of raids on the houses of non-violent worshippers like herself, where FSB and national guard agents “rush into flats and houses, breaking open doors with a crowbar and sawing them out with a chainsaw, as well as breaking windows”, according to a partial transcript of her remarks reported by Forum 18.

She said she would support similar measures against violent groups, but asked: “Why persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses who, at the cost of their lives and freedom, do not take up arms?”

Baranovskaya was sentenced to two years in prison. Her son, Roman, was sentenced to six years in the same trial.

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