Feb. 25 (UPI) — A Russian court on Wednesday sentenced a 69-year-old mother to jail for her religious beliefs, becoming the first woman jailed amid the Kremlin’s continued crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said.
“Today, Valentina Baranovskaya, an elderly woman in poor health, became the first female Jehovah’s Witness sentenced to prison in Russia today,” Gary L. Bauer, the USCIRF commission, said Wednesday in a statement. “This marks a new low in Russia’s brutal campaign against religious freedom.”
Baranovskaya and her son Roman Baranovskiy, 46, were sentenced to two years and six years, respectively, the Christian denomination said.
The pair were separately charged as extremists for organizing activities of a banned organization as the religion was ordered to shut down in Russia by its Supreme Court in 2017.
Baranovskaya told the court that she is ashamed that Russia is persecuting “the most peaceful, kind and law-abiding citizens of this country.”
“But I have no reason to be afraid and ashamed of this persecution, as if I had committed some kind of crime,” she said, according to a copy of her statement published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. “My conscience is clear before God and before the people. After all, only when a person commits a real crime is repentance expected from him in the last word.”
The religious group said the pair’s home was raided along with those of three other Jehovah’s Witnesses in April of 2019 and officers confiscated Bibles, electronic devices and personal records with hearings in the cases commencing in July of last year.
The court proceedings were postponed a week later after Baranovskaya was diagnosed with a stroke. Hearings resumed in December, it said.
“The ruling was a mockery of the rule of law — both international human rights law as well as Russia’s constitution, which protects religious freedom,” Jarrod Lopes, spokesman for the religious group, said in a statement emailed to UPI.
The sentences were handed down two weeks after Alexander Ivshin was sentenced by a Russian court to seven and a half years in prison, a record sentence for practicing the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion.
“The United States condemns Russia’s continued crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses and other peaceful religious minorities in the strongest possible terms,” Ned Price, the spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said during a regular press briefing after Ivshin was sentenced on Feb. 11.
The USCIRF has said that religious freedom conditions continue to deteriorate in Russia as authorities target non-traditional religious minorities with fines detentions and criminal charges on the accusations of the ill-defined term of extremism.
According to the State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom in Russia, authorities that year detained hundreds of suspected Jehovah’s Witnesses members and that there have been reports they were physically abused.
The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 of its members have fled Russia since it started to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling, the State Department report said.
According to the group, 440 of its members have been charged in 199 criminal cases, and 52 people have been jailed since the 2017 Supreme Court ruling.
“This is a disgraceful miscarriage of justice,” Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, said. “No one should face criminal charges, let alone an active prison sentence for peaceful involvement in religious activities.”
Denber said Baranovskaya and Baranovskiy should be immediately released and that Russia should end its persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.