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RUSSIA: Oldest Jehovah’s Witness – and first woman – jailed

In July 2020, Valentina Baranovskaya suffered a stroke. In February 2021, Abakan City Court jailed the 70-year-old for two years to punish her for meeting fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses for worship, a verdict her lawyer described as “devoid of all sympathy and compassion”. Her son was jailed for six years. Baranovskaya is the oldest – and first female – Jehovah’s Witness to be jailed since Russia banned all their activity. Two in their sixties – Yury Savelyov and Aleksandr Ivshin – are serving long jail terms.

Valentina Baranovskaya

Seventy-year-old Valentina Baranovskaya has become the oldest person and the first woman to be imprisoned for meeting fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses for worship since the Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witness activity throughout Russia in 2017. Abakan City Court in the Khakasiya Republic jailed her on 21 February for two years. At the same trial, the court jailed her 46-year-old son Roman Baranovsky for six years.

Baranovskaya was also the first Jehovah’s Witness to receive a prison term under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 2 (“Participation in the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”) (see below).

Baranovskaya suffered a stroke in July 2020, just as her trial was beginning. Despite her age and ill health she will spend nearly two years in a general-regime prison camp, after a court ruling her lawyer described as “devoid of all sympathy and compassion” (see below).

She is among a number of elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses facing criminal prosecution for exercising their right to freedom of religion and belief. Many of them are in poor health which they say has been exacerbated by the stress of criminal investigations and trials.

So far, three people aged 60 or over have been jailed, 12 have received suspended sentences, and two have received fines. Another received a prison term but was released because he had already served the time in detention during the investigation and trial.

The longest sentence yet on a Jehovah’s Witness was imposed in February 2021, when a Krasnodar Region court handed Aleksandr Ivshin, aged 63 or 64, a seven and a half year jail term. In December 2020, a court in Novosibirsk jailed Yury Savelyov, now aged 67, for six years (see below).

The Baranovskys and Ivshin were not detained or placed under house arrest during their investigations and trials, so will have to serve close to their full terms. Savelyov, who spent more than two years in detention before his conviction, is due for release in September 2023, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe (see below).

The court ordered that a Bible seized from Ivshin’s home – the widely-used Contemporary Language translation – be destroyed, despite its not having been banned as “extremist”. The Contemporary Language translation, published by the Russian Bible Society is used by many different Christian communities in Russia. The court ordered the destruction despite a 2015 amendment to the Extremism Law which prohibits banning the Bible, the Koran, the Tanakh, and the Kanjur as extremist (see below).

Anton Lopatin, Senior Assistant to the Krasnodar Regional Prosecutor, however, claimed to Forum 18 that the “so-called ‘Contemporary Translation'” Bible had been declared extremist and banned from distribution. It is unclear whether Lopatin’s claim and the court’s destruction order is a case of misidentification. It is not yet known whether the Bible destruction has been carried out (see below).

Forum 18 wrote to Russia’s General Prosecutor’s Office on 27 May 2021 about all three cases, asking why prosecutors had requested jail sentences, why the imprisonment of people in their 60s and 70s was deemed necessary, why collective prayer and Bible reading were considered criminal offences, and who had been harmed by the defendants’ activities. Forum 18 received no response by the end of the working day in Moscow of 7 June.

Since Baranovskaya’s conviction, courts have jailed another three Jehovah’s Witnesses under Criminal Code Article 282.2 Part 2:

– Oleg Danilov jailed for three years on 30 March in Abinsk (Krasnodar Region);
– Aleksandr Shcherbina jailed for three years on 6 April, also in Abinsk;
– and Rustam Seidkuliyev jailed for two years and six months on 20 May in Saratov.

Numbers still rising – nearly 100 Jehovah’s Witnesses now convicted

More than 470 Jehovah’s Witnesses remain under investigation, are on trial, or have been convicted as a direct result of the Supreme Court’s 2017 liquidation of the national-level Administrative Centre and its subsidiaries and the consequent ban on their activities throughout the country.

Ninety-four of them have now received sentences, including 10 fines, 61 suspended sentences, and 23 prison terms (though several court decisions have not yet come into force, as appeals are still pending). Two other Jehovah’s Witnesses have been convicted of “continuing the activities” of the local Jehovah’s Witness religious organisation in Oryol, which was liquidated as “extremist” in 2016, before the nationwide ban.

Only one Jehovah’s Witness has been acquitted (of an extremism-related offence unconnected to the 2017 ban).

Courts in Crimea and Sevastopol have also sentenced three Jehovah’s Witnesses to imprisonment.

Muslims who meet to study the writings of Turkish theologian Said Nursi may also be prosecuted under the Extremism Law for organising or participating in the activities of “Nurdzhular”. This organisation was banned as extremist in 2008, but Muslims in Russia deny it ever existed. Typically, such Muslims meet in homes to study Islam, with one or more expounding on Nursi’s works. They also pray, eat, and drink tea together, and do not seek state permission to meet.

There are no trials currently underway of Muslims who met to study Nursi’s works currently underway, but three people are facing prosecution in the Tatarstan and Dagestan Republics.

At present, only one person who met with others to read Nursi’s works remains imprisoned – Ilgar Vagif-ogly Aliyev (born 16 February 1977). A court in Dagestan sentenced him in May 2018 to eight years’ imprisonment plus two years of restrictions on freedom for alleged involvement in “Nurdzhular”.

The Investigative Committee, police, the FSB security service, and National Guard troops continue to raid Jehovah’s Witness homes, most recently in Khabarovsk Region on 5 June, Lipetsk Region on 1 June, and Altay Region on 27 May. Prosecutions are currently underway in 64 of Russia’s 83 federal subjects.

Punishments

After being kept under FSB or police surveillance for some months, most targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslim readers of Nursi’s works are prosecuted for “organising” (Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 1), or “participating in” (Part 2), “the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”.

The activities prosecuted under both these parts of Criminal Code Article 282.2 are very similar. They include meeting in each other’s homes to pray and sing together, study sacred texts, and to discuss shared beliefs.

Possible punishments are:

Part 1 – six to 10 years’ imprisonment; or a 400,000 to 800,000 Rouble fine;
Part 2 – two to six years’ imprisonment; a 300,000 to 600,000 Rouble fine; or one to four years’ assigned labour.

Several Jehovah’s Witnesses have also been charged under Criminal Code Article 282.3, Part 1 (“Financing extremist activity”), apparently by continuing to collect donations for activities from other Jehovah’s Witnesses after the 2017 ban on Jehovah’s Witness activity.

Possible punishments are: four to eight years’ imprisonment; a 300,000 to 700,000 Rouble fine; or two to five years’ assigned labour.

Other charges have been brought against Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 1.1 (“Inclination, recruitment or other involvement of a person in an extremist organisation”).

Possible punishments are: four to eight years’ imprisonment; a 300,000 to 700,000 Rouble fine; or two to five years’ assigned labour.

The average monthly salary before tax for those in work was 51,351 Roubles in 2020, according to the Federal State Statistical Service. Salaries can vary widely, however, both between and within regions. In the capital city of Moscow, the average pre-tax salary in 2020 was 100,070 Roubles per month. In the Nenets Autonomous Region (among several regions of northern Russia where many people work in the well-remunerated natural resources sector), it was 92,237 Roubles – while in the central regions of Oryol and Ivanovo monthly pay was 31,862 and 29,082 Roubles respectively. The Republic of Khakasiya’s monthly salary in 2020 was 43,800 Roubles, Krasnodar Region’s 38,498 Roubles, and Novosibirsk Region’s 41,533 Roubles.

The average pension in Russia in 2020 was 15,059 Roubles per month.

Judges can also impose a range of restrictions on freedom both during suspended sentences, and for certain periods after a person’s release from imprisonment.

Despite the similarities in the activities being prosecuted, trials have so far ended in a variety of sentences – from prison terms of several years, to suspended sentences of varying lengths, to a range of fines. There has also been one sentence of assigned labour, later changed to a fine.

No one prosecuted after the 2017 nationwide ban has been acquitted, though judges have returned some cases to prosecutors who later resubmit them. Defendants have sometimes succeeded in getting sentences reduced, or having cases sent for retrial on appeal, though no conviction has yet been overturned.

Russian-annexed Crimea and Sevastopol have also seen three jailings of Jehovah’s Witnesses and four convictions of Muslims accused of membership of the Tabligh Jamaat missionary movement. Most recently, Jehovah’s Witness Viktor Stashevsky was jailed on 29 March for six and a half years in an ordinary regime labour camp.

Khakasiya Republic: Oldest Jehovah’s Witness prisoner

On 24 February 2021, Valentina Ivanovna Baranovskaya (born 8 April 1951) became the first woman and the oldest Jehovah’s Witness to be sentenced to imprisonment when Abakan City Court handed her a two-year prison term under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 2 (“Participating in the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”).

The court sentenced her son, Roman Lyubomirovich Baranovsky (born 27 June 1974), at the same trial to a six-year prison term under Criminal Code Article 282.2, Part 1 (“Organising the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation in relation to which a court has adopted a decision legally in force on liquidation or ban on the activity in connection with the carrying out of extremist activity”).

Prosecutors had requested sentences of eight years’ imprisonment for Baranovsky and five years for his mother. At present, both are in detention in Abakan awaiting transportation to the prison camps in which they will serve their sentences (locations currently unknown).

According to the jw-russia.org website’s record of the trial, prosecutors claimed that “Baranovskaya took the decision to participate in the collective profession and dissemination of the Christian faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses, namely: to holding worship services, acquainting people with the Holy Scriptures and biblical teachings, and the principles and norms of this religion”. Their case was based on covert recordings made over a period of 18 months – Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that there was nothing extremist in any of the Baranovskys’ conversations or acts of worship.

They appealed unsuccessfully at the Supreme Court of the Khakasiya Republic on 24 May 2021. At present, both are in detention in Abakan awaiting transportation to the prison camps in which they will serve their sentences (locations currently unknown). They will “of course” be challenging their convictions at the cassational level, their lawyer Yegiazar Chernikov told Forum 18 on 26 May.

Forum 18 wrote to the Khakasiya Republic Prosecutor’s Office before the start of the working day of 27 May, asking why prosecutors had requested prison sentences, why the imprisonment of a 70-year-old woman with health problems was deemed necessary, why collective prayer and Bible reading were considered criminal offences, and who had been harmed by the Baranovskys’ activities. Forum 18 received no reply by the end of the working day in Abakan of 7 June.

Forum 18 put the same questions to the press service of Abakan City Court before the start of the working day of 3 June, but has received no response.

Neither of the Baranovskys were detained or placed under house arrest during the investigation or trial – they will therefore be imprisoned for their full terms (minus about four and half months to account for their time in detention between conviction and appeal).

After their release, they will be subject to restrictions on freedom – Valentina for six months, Roman for 18 months – including a ban on leaving their home town and an obligation to report to probation authorities at specified intervals. Neither was added to the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) “List of Terrorists and Extremists” during the investigation.

Baranovskaya’s medical conditions pose “a threat to her life and health”

Just before court proceedings began in July 2020, Baranovskaya – already in poor health which Jehovah’s Witnesses think has been exacerbated by the stress of prosecution – suffered a stroke and was hospitalised.

“It is difficult to explain the inhuman attitude towards those who in our society are usually treated as vulnerable and in need of help, all the more so since they know that Valentina Ivanovna has had a stroke, and the regime of being in prison [could] provoke a recurrence of this crisis”, lawyer Yegiazar Chernikov commented to Forum 18 on 25 May.

He explained that the case materials included a doctor’s opinion that Baranovskaya’s medical conditions pose “a threat to her life and health”, and argued that they should not allow her to be kept in prison.

“In her state of health Valentina may not return home, and may never see her son again,” Chernikov said. “The court provided no explanation for why it considered that this woman necessarily poses a threat to society and therefore needs to be isolated from it. Such a decision is devoid of all sympathy and compassion.”

Final speeches

“I am sure that any sane person understands that this campaign of persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses is senseless and cruel,” Valentina Baranovskaya said in her final speech to the court on 8 February. “After all, who is being persecuted? Not only young and middle-aged men, but also the elderly, disabled, cancer patients, women over 70 and even 80 years old.”

Baranovskaya complained that special forces troops of the FSB and the National Guard “rush into flats and houses, breaking open doors with a crowbar and sawing them out with a chainsaw, as well as breaking windows”.

“But I have no reason to be afraid or ashamed of this persecution, as if I had committed some kind of crime. My conscience is clear before God and before people .. And I am deeply convinced that the entire judicial investigation proved only that the worship meetings imputed to me are exclusively peaceful, legal, non-dangerous religious activities that have not been prohibited by any court.”

Baranovskaya stated that she thought it “necessary to oppose those who really do encourage violence and aggression”, but “why persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses who, at the cost of their lives and freedom, do not take up arms?”

Roman Baranovsky noted in his final speech on 11 February that he was merely being accused of professing his faith, “because it is the actions of professing faith, according to the prosecution, that confirm my unlawful activities, namely: hymns glorifying God, collective prayers, and discussion of the Bible in my house with my friends and acquaintances .. Is this really possible? How can this undermine the constitutional order of our country?”

The Baranovskys’ current prison address is:
655017, Respublika Khakasiya
g. Abakan
kv. Molodyozhniy 22B
FKU Sledstvenniy izolyator No. 1 UFSIN Rossii po Respublike Khakasiya

They are likely to be moved in the near future to begin serving their terms in general-regime prison camps. It is as yet unknown where they will be sent.

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