Statement by Embassy Spokesperson William Stevens on Ruling in Jehovah’s Witnesses Case

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow expresses its deep regret about the November 30 court ruling in Taganrog that found several Jehovah’s Witnesses guilty of extremism for organizing and attending religious meetings and for sharing their faith with others.  This was not the first time these Jehovah’s Witnesses were on trial.  The same Taganrog court found seven of them guilty in July 2014, but prosecutors appealed what they determined to be “excessively lenient” sentences, and the Rostov Regional Court ordered a retrial, essentially instructing the Taganrog court to assess these Jehovah’s Witnesses stricter penalties.

As Secretary Kerry said last month during the release of the 2014 International Religious Freedom Report “the concept of religious freedom extends way beyond mere tolerance.”  Religious freedom “is based on respect, and respect, in turn, demands legal equality.”  The decision by Russian authorities to prosecute these sixteen Jehovah’s Witnesses not just once, but twice for professing their faith and attending bible study meetings is not one based in respect.  With this second ruling against these Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russia again confirms the findings of our International Religious Freedom Report that it is a country that denies the rights of minority religious groups.  Additionally, this court decision re-affirms the words of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein, who said in October that “Russia continues to use vaguely formulated anti-extremism laws to justify arrests, raids on homes and places of worship, and the confiscation or banning of religious literature.”

Repression of religious freedom undermines genuine stability and often exacerbates societal hostility and even violence.  The United States encourages the Russian government to stop prosecuting people for attending religious meetings and sharing their faith and to join together with us to promote religious freedom as a fundamental human right.