Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses allege ‘21st-century Inquisition’ amid claims of torture

'They electrocuted them in their arms and private parts, pouring water over them to intensify the experience – then they threatened rape and beat them'

Oliver Carroll
Moscow
Thursday 21 February 2019 19:08
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Russia court jails Jehovah's Witness for six years

Jehovah’s Witnesses have alleged abuse including suffocation and electric shock torture at the hands of Russian security forces.

Dozens were arrested in dawn raids and seven were allegedly tortured when authorities intensified a crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses in the western Siberian city of Surgut.

In interviews with The Independent, several of the alleged victims described extreme violence in shocking detail.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been forbidden from practising since 2017, when Russia’s Supreme Court branded the local branch of the global church to be an extremist organisation. Many have been intimidated and arrested. More than 120 followers now face criminal investigation, a number that is increasing every month.

But this is the first time the church has reported such serious violence against its members.

“We’ve become used to the arrest of innocent people, but this goes beyond the realm of good and evil,” said Yaroslav Sivulskiy of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “It is the Inquisition of the 21st century.”

The Siberian arrests started just before dawn on 15 February. Most of the 40 men and women arrested – all believed to be followers of the local Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation – were taken from their homes in the first wave of morning operations. Others were arrested later, as they walked from work. One video shows a SWAT team of a dozen operatives jumping out of three cars on a central intersection to detain two men.

Sergei, 41, who asked for his surname to be withheld, said there were no immediate signs that his arrest would take such an ugly turn.

Unlike some of the other victims, he said, police decided against a violent entry into his apartment. They simply knocked on the door at 6am, and he opened the door without resistance. Everything was “quite peaceful” – right up to the point that he was delivered to the local branch of the State Investigation Committee.

It was there, inside an office on the ground floor, he said, that the crimes began.

“At first they made me split my legs. Then they tied my legs up and tied my arms behind my back. They hit me in my kidneys. They put a bag over my head and taped it up around my neck so that I couldn’t breathe."

“There was a point that I was breathing in this polythene bag. Then they started applying electric shocks.”

Sergei said he “never gave up hope”, but there were moments in his 40-minute ordeal when he felt things “slipping away”. He said he has no idea why he was singled out for torture.

“Perhaps they didn’t like the explanations I gave.”

Others got off lighter. Timofei Zhukov, 39, a lawyer, said he received blows to the head during his detention – but avoided the worst excesses later. He was not, however, spared the trauma of listening to the cries of his friends from the investigator’s office further up the corridor. Some of the sessions lasted up to two hours, he recalled, adding: “It was just too much for some.”

"One of our members is over 70 and the very threat of this happening to him made him faint. In the end, they let him go, saying he they didn’t need an old mattress and a death on their hands,” he said.

Mr Zhukov said he couldn’t understand the logic of a crackdown that targeted and broke “law-abiding, honest” citizens.

Yegiazar Chernikov, a lawyer representing the alleged victims, tells The Independent he had never come across a case “so savage” in over 10 years of practice in Russia.

“They electrocuted them in their arms and private parts, pouring water over them to intensify the experience,” he said. “Then they threatened rape and did beat them. The police might have got the statements they wanted, but their behaviour reminds you of fascism and Hitler’s concentration camps.”

The lawyer said he had seen “clear evidence” of torture on his clients, including burns and suffocation marks. But documenting it may not be straightforward. On the one hand, the officers had done a “good job” covering up their tracks – they were “obviously experienced in such affairs”. On another, his clients have been placed on a no-travel list by investigators, making the task of obtaining independent medical expertise near impossible.

“We are still quite concerned about the security of these people,” he added.

On Thursday, another of the arrested men reported that he had been summarily fired from his job as a firefighter.

Igor Trifonov, a veteran with more than two decades in the service, told The Independent he was ordered to sign his own resignation letter. “My three kids have been crying ever since the operatives barged down the door,” he said.

“Now I don’t have a job, but I’m certain my God will show me a way through.”

In comments to the Tass news agency on Thursday, a representative of the local State Investigative Committee rejected allegations of torture.

Officers had acted entirely “within the realm of the law”, said Oleg Tasshykh, and “without using psychological, physical or mental pressure”. The committee knew of no “statement or complaint about torture”.

We’ve become used to the arrest of innocent people, but this goes beyond the realm of good and evil. It is the inquisition of the 21st century.

Yaroslav Sivulskiy of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses

A document published on the Jehovah’s Witnesses Russian website suggested that might not be entirely true, with a request to remove the officers apparently sent on Saturday.

European spokesperson Yaroslav Sivulskiy told The Independent that the group had also appealed to the presidential representative on human rights, Mikhail Fedotov, his ombudsman, Tatyana Moskalkova, and to the presidential administration.

At one point, the beleaguered religious group had hoped that in Vladimir Putin they had found an unlikely advocate. Speaking at a meeting with his human rights council in December, the president described the decision to declare the “Christian” organisation as “nonsense”, and said he “didn’t understand” why it was being persecuted.

But the subsequent conviction of a Danish-born Jehovah’s Witness for “extremist” behaviour alongside these latest developments seem to offer clues about how Mr Putin’s own system resolved to interpret his words.

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