Russian authorities in the Jewish Autonomous Region in Siberia have charged eight Jehovah's Witnesses with extremism amid what activists say is an escalating campaign of persecution of the religious group.
The branch of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia said on February 18 that six women and two men in the regional capital, Birobidzhan, are facing charges of illegally resuming the activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Similar charges have been filed against 11 other Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia since the start of 2020.
Russia officially banned the religious group in April 2017 and deemed it an "extremist organization," a designation the U.S. State Department has characterized as "wrong."
The Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia for decades due to the views of its members about military service, voting, and government authority in general.
Since the faith was outlawed in Russia, nine Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia. They include Danish citizen Dennis Christensen, who was sentenced in February 2019 to six years in prison in the western city of Oryol. The charges against Christensen have been condemned by rights groups in Russia and abroad.
In September, Washington banned two high-ranking regional officers from Russia's Investigative Committee from entering the United States over the alleged torture of seven detainees who are Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized 29 Jehovah's Witnesses, who've been charged with or convicted of extremism, as political prisoners.
On January 9, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Russian law enforcement authorities had "dramatically escalated the nationwide persecution" of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the previous year.
HRW said Russian authorities have carried out at least 780 raids of houses owned by Jehovah's Witnesses in dozens of Russian cities since 2017. More than half of those raids were conducted in 2019.