Russia’s Supreme Court has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating in the country, accepting a request from the justice ministry that the religious organisation be considered an extremist group.
The court ordered the closure of the group’s Russian headquarters and its 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property.
The Interfax news agency quoted justice ministry lawyer Svetlana Borisova in court as saying the Jehovah’s Witnesses “pose a threat to the rights of the citizens, public order and public security”.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim more than 170,000 adherents in Russia. The group has come under increasing pressure over the past year, including a ban on distributing literature deemed to violate Russia’s anti-extremism laws.
Ms Borisova also said Jehovah’s Witnesses’ opposition to blood transfusions violates Russian health care laws.
Yaroslav Sivulsky, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, said in a statement they are “greatly disappointed by this development and deeply concerned about how this will affect our religious activity.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses said they would appeal the ruling.
Human Rights Watch criticised Thursday’s decision as an impediment to religious freedom in Russia.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The rights group also expressed concern that if the ruling takes effect, Jehovah’s Witnesses could face criminal prosecution and punishment ranging from fines to prison time.