Mr. Shpakovskiy, 61, was sentenced June 9 in Pskov City Court to 6½ years in prison and was taken into custody in the courtroom. He is a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination that is nonviolent, eschews subservience to the state, refuses military service, does not vote and views God as the only true leader. In a 2017 ruling, Russia’s Supreme Court outlawed the faith as “extremist,” and adherents have been mercilessly persecuted ever since. Mr. Shpakovskiy’s sentence was only the latest imposed on believers, but it was the longest yet.
Separately, another believer, Artyom Gerasimov, drew a six-year sentence on June 4 in Russian-annexed Crimea. In all, 31 Jehovah’s Witnesses are now in prison; a total of 170 have served time in pretrial detention; 23 are under house arrest; and 145 homes have been raided this year, including during the pandemic.
This is a sorry record. Russia in 1993 approved a constitution that declares, “Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with other any religion or to profess no religion at all.” Even President Vladimir Putin questioned in December 2018 what was happening: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians too. I don’t quite understand why they are persecuted. So this should be looked into. This must be done.” Since then, he hasn’t lifted a finger to stop the secret police tactics of the FSB, of which he was once the director.
Now would be a good time for President Trump to act on a principle he claims to believe in. On June 2, he signed an executive order declaring that “Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority of the United States,” and vowed to spend $50 million for programs that “anticipate, prevent, and respond to attacks against individuals and groups on the basis of their religion.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the annual U.S. religious freedom report June 10, insisting “There is no other nation that cares so deeply about religious freedom.”
Mr. Pompeo should have discomfited the Kremlin by mentioning the plight of Jehovah’s Witnesses in his remarks. He did not. If Mr. Trump genuinely wants to defend religious freedom, and not just hold up a Bible in a photo op, he should publicly call out Mr. Putin for criminalizing worship. He should demand that Russia release the Jehovah’s Witnesses and leave them in peace.