RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Autor)
Nik, a Jehovah's Witness who fled Russia and is seeking asylum in Germany, sits in a Bamberg cafe and shakes his head.
The muscularly-built former boxer, who declined to give his real name out of fears that his family back home could face persecution -- left Russia in March with his family and is now living in a former U.S. military installation waiting for his case to be heard.
After years of what he claims was persecution by Russian authorities -- including months in an isolation jail cell and hints that the authorities were building a case to seize his child -- Nik decided it was time to leave his home in the Volga region of Russia.
And apparently, he is not alone. Nik says there are hundreds of other Russian Jehovah's Witnesses at the facility located on the outskirts of the western German city.
Facing an arrest warrant at home, Nik still can't fathom why the Russian government has targeted the estimated 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. "I don't understand what the Russian government is doing. It seems like the Russian government is hurting itself, chopping off the branch that it's sitting on. Because all 175,000 of these people are law-abiding citizens. Obeying the law is one of the main tenets of our faith," Nik tells the Volga Desk of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service .
The Jehovah's Witnesses have been under intense pressure since the Russian Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that it was an "extremist" organization.
With about 8 million followers worldwide, Jehovah's Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.
In February, a Russian court sentenced a Danish follower to six years in prison, a sentence the top UN human rights official said created a dangerous precedent and violated international law guaranteeing freedom of religion.
A recent report by a U.S. federal commission recommended the State Department include Russia as a "country of particular concern," in part for the Russian government's repeated labeling of religious and ethnic minorities as extremist.
Nik says he was an upstanding citizen back in the central Volga region of Russia, pulling in a relatively high wage casting keys for a locksmith. "And my employer -- I worked in the private sector -- paid me by the book. All my taxes were paid. That was my demand," he states proudly.
His police record was spotless, he boasts, saying it amazed the local chief traffic cop. "When the traffic inspector learned that I didn't have one ticket over all those years, he was surprised. It's my outlook on life: do everything according to the law, so that my conscience won't torment me."
However, he found himself in the crosshairs of the law in 2012 when he was investigated under Criminal Code Article 282, which outlaws acts or statements that incite ethnic, religious, or other forms of hatred or public discord. For two years he was under a court order not to leave the area.
Asked what sparked the authorities' interest, Nik says it was the local gatherings -- congresses, as he calls them -- of Jehovah's Witnesses. "Fifteen hundred to 2,000 delegates usually took part in these events. I was often one of the speakers," he says.
"And it appears that everything was filmed. Then this material was turned over to experts for analysis. The experts concluded my speeches contain suggestions of my religion's superiority. The charge was based on that," Nik explains, adding that after a two-year probe all charges against him were quietly dropped.
Law Enforcement Comes Calling Again
However, his relative peace lasted only a few years. At the crack of dawn on May 16, 2018, agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB), Investigative Committee, and a police antiextremism department raided his home, Nik recounts.
"Our home was searched. They seized all our phones, tablets, computer, flash sticks. They took lots of personal items as well, including post cards, personal notes, etc. And at the end of the search, toward evening, they told me that I was going to be taken to the Investigative Committee. And not only me, but my wife, too."
It didn't take long for the authorities to file charges against him.
"Right away at the Investigative Committee I was arrested. The charges were read to me and, in the evening, I was in the IVS -- temporary detention center. In two days the court ruled to send me to jail for one month. This was extended two times. In total, I spent 78 days in jail," Nik says.
He says some of that time was spent in a dank isolation cell where his jailors did what they could to break his will and get him to "confess" and agree to cooperate with them on outing other Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Bed, sink, and open toilet. Two video cameras film you round the clock. The light is never dimmed round the clock. There's a small window, but you can't see whether it's night or day outside. I was brought in at night. In the morning I realized what the first type of torture would be. At six in the morning, music was blared. It came from this speaker that was placed near a vent. And in this little chamber of mine there was such noise and rattling from the speaker that I felt a splitting sensation in my head. They didn't turn off the music until 10 at night. And that continued for 10 or 12 days, I don't remember exactly how long I was in there," Nik explains.
Based on his observations in prison, Nik predicts a bleak future for the authorities in Russia. "I saw the faces of the people in prison. I heard their stories and can say with confidence: this system is embittering people, turning them against the system. It's grooming even more sophisticated criminals."
Move To Exile Amid Fears Over Child
A court ruled on August 3, 2018, to transfer him to house arrest, and he was fitted with an ankle bracelet to monitor his movements. But it was a fear that authorities were maneuvering to take away his daughter that pushed him to leave Russia.
His wife, a former police investigator and Jehovah's Witness, got word the Investigative Committee was considering arresting her as well. Alarm bells were also triggered when a social worker and a psychologist talked to his daughter at school.
"If they decide that the child is threatened, then they can decide to have the child removed from the family," explains Nik, adding that having parents branded as "extremists" would make it all the easier.
He says the conviction in February of Dennis Christensen, the Danish Jehovah's Witness, to six years in prison for "organizing the activity of an extremist organization" also weighed on his decision.
"It proved to us that there is no hope," he says.
The ruling against Christensen by a district court in the western city of Oryol was roundly condemned internationally, including by the UN.
"The harsh sentence imposed on Christensen creates a dangerous precedent, and effectively criminalizes the right to freedom of religion or belief for Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia -- in contravention of the state's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement .
In its recent report , the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that in 2018 "Russia accelerated the repressive behavior" that led to that recommendation.
"The Jehovah's Witnesses, whom the government banned outright in 2017, faced severe persecution by the state," according to the report.
Now safe in Germany, Nik says he is focused on starting his new life in a country where he can freely practice his faith. As for returning to Russia someday, Nik is not optimistic.
"If they stop persecuting me and it's possible to follow my religion, then that would be a totally different situation. But, honestly, I don't believe it will happen. I believed from 2012 to 2018. For seven years I believed that common sense would return. But I saw that the situation only worsened. And the rights of the individual in Russia are denied more and more. I don't see a future for myself or family under such conditions."
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