MOSCOW — In a bright, spotless apartment in a Moscow suburb, a small circle of people sat around a table in December 2019. Bowls of candies and teapots were set out, along with salads.
The group opened the meeting with a prayer and a hymn — most of them shy and just murmuring along, raising their voices a little above some background music played on a television showing a preacher in a suit.
The people present were Jehovah’s Witnesses — a Christian religious sect first founded in the United States in the 19th century but now has an estimated 8 million followers around the world.
In many countries, such meetings would be nothing unusual. But in Russia, authorities now treat them as illegal, designating them as gatherings of “extremists.”
That means attendees meet in secret. Before arriving, they check the street for police. As they meet, they know there is a risk of officers knocking at the door or even breaking it down. If they are arrested, they could face years in prison.
These are the fears Jehovah’s Witnesses have lived with in Russia since the group was outlawed in the country in 2017. The Russian supreme court that year banned the religion as “extremist,” and in doing so unleashed what is perhaps one of the worst but most mysterious persecution campaigns in Russia.
The estimated 175,000 adherents in Russia are now equated with members of dangerous terrorist organizations. The community has been subjected to hundreds of raids and arrests by Russian security forces and, in some places, alleged torture. Across Russia, hundreds have been charged as “extremists,” and dozens have been jailed in a campaign that human rights groups have struggled to explain.
Banned under the Soviet Union and authorized in the liberal years following its collapse, the renewed persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses is seen by some as the frightening return of Soviet oppression once thought gone as well as a reflection of how security services under President Vladimir Putin are turning the clock back on dissent.
“We are talking about a group of people who are practicing their religion peacefully, who are not carrying out any violent actions, who are not interfering with public order,” said Tanya Lokshina, the Human Rights Watch associate director for Europe and Central Asia.
“And those people are treated as dangerous criminals. As, quote unquote, ‘extremists.'”
‘Reminds me of the Inquisition’
The Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned under an anti-extremism law, nominally intended for dangerous, violent organizations. It means that the peaceful group, which has no history of violence and forbids involvement in politics, was placed alongside terrorist organizations such as ISIS or the Japanese Doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, which carried a nerve agent attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
People charged with participating in the Jehovah’s Witnesses can be sentenced up to six years in a prison camp, and organizers can face up to 10 years. In many cases, just praying in a group has been enough for police to bring charges against a person.
Since 2017, police have carried out hundreds of raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes and meeting places all across Russia, according to the religious group as well as human rights groups. Over 500 adherents have been charged under the extremism law, and dozens are already jailed on sentences up to eight years.
Dozens of those charged are elderly — some as old as 89. In the far eastern city of Vladivostok, an 86 year-old was charged with extremism and placed on a terrorism watchlist.
“It reminds me of the Inquisition,” said Evgeny Kandaurov, a journalist and Jehovah’s Witness whose home was raided earlier this year.
The “extremist” designation also means that when police conduct raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses, they act as though they are storming hideouts of armed terrorists.
Dozens of videos released by law enforcement show officers in full body armor and helmets, often armed with guns and batons, entering the apartments of terrified people. In some cases, police rip down doors with power saws and crow bars.
The show of force is directed against people usually sitting quietly in prayer or otherwise defenseless, asleep in their pajamas. Officers often appear aware there’s no threat, sometimes just ringing the door bell and waiting while standing in their combat gear.
Officers act “as if some very dangerous criminal activity were actually going on,” Lokshina said. “While in fact what they’re dealing with is people who are praying and talking and peacefully practicing their faith.”
‘I thought I was going to suffocate to death’
In its first years, the enforcement campaign mostly took place in regions far outside Moscow.
One morning in February 2019, in the northern city of Surgut, about 1,800 miles from Moscow, law enforcement officers rounded up around 40 Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to the church.
The believers were brought for interrogation at the local branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee, which handles serious crimes. There, at least seven detained men said officers tortured them, including with electric shocks, beatings and suffocation.
“They tied my hands and legs with tape,” one of the men, Sergey Volosnikov, 42, told ABC News in an interview last year.
“They put a bag over my head and put me on the floor. Then they started to close the bag so that air couldn’t get in. I was already preparing myself that I’m going to … .to suffocate to death,” he said.
Volosnikov said police then tortured him with a stun gun before demanding he sign a confession.
The other men described similar torture, telling ABC News they were taken into the room one by one after refusing to confess to extremism charges. Some of the men said the officers threatened to rape them, pulling down their underwear and using a stun gun on their buttocks. Others said police injected them with a liquid and told them it would cause their hearts to stop.
“I was lying on the floor, all tied up with the sack on my head. And they started to discuss some kind of object, right, which they would rape me with,” said Artyom Kim, who said he was taken into the room three times, where he was also electrocuted and suffocated.
“I was afraid for my life. I was already saying goodbye to all my relatives,” he said.
The seven men have demanded Russian federal law enforcement investigate their allegations of torture, but their requests have been repeatedly rejected, they said.
“You can’t take faith from someone. If he believes, it means he believes,” Volosnikov said. “To beat the faith out of someone, that’s already totalitarianism.”
The Kremlin has largely refused to comment on the campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. When previously asked by reporters about it, spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the group is banned and that there is nothing more to discuss.
In Surgut, nearly two dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses remain under criminal investigation and will likely face a trial on the extremism charges.
Timofey Zhukov, a local lawyer in Surgut and a Jehovah’s Witness, has helped coordinate the defense of those charged. But police have put him under investigation as well.
In February 2020, ABC News attended a court hearing that Zhukov and around 20 Jehovah’s Witnesses were at to support another believer facing charges.
Before it started, two plainclothes police officers entered and approached Zhukov, informing him they were there to take him to a psychiatric hospital located nearly 800 miles away.
A court had earlier ordered Zhukov to undergo psychological evaluation at the hospital, something he said he believed was intended to pressure him for fighting the criminal charges.
He refused to go with the two officers on the basis that the court order was under appeal. After a tense standoff, the two officers backed down and left.
“It’s one of their methods of repression,” Zhukov said. “If there hadn’t been cameras and so many people here, the conversation would have ended differently.”
But as Zhukov exited the court building later, the officers jumped him, trying to drag him away from the crowd of other Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Zhukov managed to escape, but a day later was grabbed again by police. He said he spent three weeks in a psychiatric hospital, housed with other men in a room with barred windows. His detention echoes a practice from Soviet times when authorities incarcerated dissidents in mental institutions.
“All this is happening just because I read the Bible and am a person of faith,” Zhukov said.
‘Nobody knows why’
Besides its extravagant displays of force and harsh sentences, the campaign has another unusual feature: No one really knows why it is happening.
“Nobody knows,” Lokshina said. “A lot of people have been trying to figure it out, but nobody really knows.”
Unlike efforts to outlaw political opponents of the Kremlin, there is no obvious motive for why Russian authorities have targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Internationally, the group is best known for their proselytising on door steps. They share similar beliefs with many mainstream Christian churches, though they have a number of unique values as well. Some of the beliefs — such as rejecting blood transfusions — are controversial, but none are violent.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are also forbidden from getting involved in politics, making the campaign even more puzzling.
In the early days of the campaign, some observers believed the campaign might have been launched without the Kremlin’s direct involvement.
When Putin was asked about the ban in 2018, he appeared surprised, saying it was “total nonsense” and adding it “should be looked into carefully.”
Such words from Putin are usually interpreted as a signal to pull back. But since his remarks, the campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses has intensified. In the past year, it has spread to Moscow, which had previously been largely spared arrests and raids.
As the campaign becomes broader, some experts have concluded it must be directed from the top of government and at least approved by Putin.
“I think the decisions must be made at the top level,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center, which studies extremism in Russia.
While it’s unclear why the group is being targeted, some experts see the church’s links to the United States, as well as its size and active search for converts, as likely reasons.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ distinctive belief of refusing to interact with governments is also likely key, Verkhovsky said. Although they are permitted to obey laws and pay taxes, believers are prohibited from joining the military or holding any government posts.
“For our authorities, that looks extremely suspicious,” Verkhovsky said.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have frequently become victims of authoritarian regimes. They were persecuted under the Nazis and in the Soviet Union, where they were banned until its collapse in 1991. Under Joseph Stalin, tens of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses were deported en masse to Siberia in 1951.
Russia’s campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses has occurred as the country has become far more authoritarian under Putin. The same anti-extremism law used against Jehovah’s Witnesses was applied this year to outlaw the movement of the Kremlin’s main political opponent, Alexey Navalny, who remains in a prison camp.
Senior Russian officials have stoked an atmosphere of anti-Western paranoia, urging the security services to be alert for foreign groups seeking to undermine Russia. The broader turn back toward Soviet-style suspicion of dissent appears to have also brought the government’s former attitude to the Jehovah’s Witnesses along with it.
“My impression is that the anti-extremism law is used when somebody — I don’t know who, but somebody — sees a religious movement as a political threat. How they see this threat, we do not know, because they do not talk about it in public,” Verkhovsky said.
In such an atmosphere, local security forces can also see extremism cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses as easy ways to earn approval and promotion, he said.
The United States has been increasingly vocal in condemning the campaign. In December, the State Department added Russia to its special watchlist for “severe violators” of religious freedom, which also includes Iran and Pakistan. The U.S. in 2019 also announced entry bans on two senior Russian law enforcement officers in Surgut over the alleged torture of the Jehovah’s Witnesses there.
But there is no indication the campaign is slowing down. In February, police and Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) launched raids across Moscow, saying it searched 16 addresses and made arrests.
Among those swept up was Yury Temirbulatov, a teacher and Jehovah’s Witness who had spoken to ABC News in the beginning of 2020.
At the time, he and others had been concerned the campaign might reach Moscow but said they felt relatively safe.
He said back then that he did not understand why they were being persecuted. He is now in a Moscow detention center and faces up to six years in prison if convicted.
“For the past 20 years, I teach people only to love, to be very polite, to be pay taxes, to work hard,” he said. “I don’t understand.”