On July 29, three Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced to six years in prison, on top of the two years they served while waiting for their trial. Two of the Jehova’s Witnesses are father and son, Vilen(68) and Arsen(37) Avanesov. Aleksandr Parkov (53), a companion, was also charged. Arsen and Parkov were sentenced to six and a half years, while Vilen was sentenced to six years. By the end of their time, they would have all spent nearly a decade behind bars.
The three were arrested and detained since May 2019 in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. The they were charged with organizing schemes related to extremism. The youngest, Arsen Avanesov, received an additional charge for collecting donations to pay for a room that serves as their make-shift church. Arsen was charged with “financing extremist activities.”
This is not the first time Jehova’s Witnesses faced jail time on top of the constant police harassment and house raids. In Russia, religions like that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were recognized as extremist groups back in 2017. In the same year, Valentina Baranovskaya with her son Roman Baranovskiy both received six years in prison as the first Jehovah’s Witnesses that were imprisoned. They were both charged with extremism for practicing their faith.
Both international and Russian-based human rights watchdogs, including religious organizations, are in awe and appalled by what the Russian government is doing. The former ambassador of the UK to Russia, Sir Andrew Wood, describes Russia’s extremist labels as having “no credible definition.” Wood added that Russia’s goal is “repression, not the exercise of justice.”
The Jehovah’s Witness religion was banned in Russia under the Soviet Union. After the iron curtain fell, beliefs such as Jehovah’s Witnesses’ were allowed to flourish, and members were given a chance to practice their faith openly. Under Vladimir Putin, Christian sects with eccentric interpretations of the bible fear for their members.
Arsen Avanesov, in his closing statements, said, “I dedicated my life to him and did it sincerely… I don’t want, I can’t, and will not give up my promise.’