Updated 5:37 p.m. ET
A Russian court has sentenced a man to six years in prison. His crime? Being a practicing Jehovah's Witness.
Sergei Klimov was sentenced Tuesday in the Siberian college town of Tomsk. He is one of a number of Jehovah's Witnesses to be convicted in the two years since Russia's Supreme Court banned the religious group as an extremist organization.
The court said that Klimov had continued heading a regional Jehovah's Witnesses branch in defiance of the government's ban. Russian state media referred to Klimov's group as a "cell of an extremist organization."
Russia effectively considers Jehovah's Witnesses on par with the Islamic State.
Human Rights Watch says the group has been increasingly persecuted as part of an "escalating crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses, who are targeted simply for practicing their faith."
Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin described pressure on Jehovah's Witnesses as "complete nonsense." However, Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday that Klimov's sentence was simply the court following the rule of law.
Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty says that when Peskov was pressed by reporters about whether there were plans to change the controversial law, he responded that there were "no new developments."
But, according to the news organization, he did not dismiss the idea of changes in the future.
Jarrod Lopes, a spokesperson at the Jehovah's Witness headquarters in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., tells NPR, that Klimov was arrested with roughly 30 other members of the organization in June 2018.
The arrest took place after security forces raided two homes in Tomsk, but of those detained, only Klimov was charged, Lopes said.
Lopes adds his organization has been told "multiple times" by Russian authorities that the Supreme Court ban is not against individual Jehovah's Witnesses.
Instead the ban was on the "legal entities" needed for Jehovah's Witnesses who live in Russia, to rent or or purchase property for worship.
"However that's not the way it's going down," Lopes said. "The way it's going down is that local authorities are using the Supreme Court ruling ... as a weapon to target individual believers."
To date, Lopes said at least 284 Jehovah's Witnesses are under criminal investigation in Russia.
Klimov is the eighth Jehovah's Witness to be sentenced since the ban went into effect in 2017, Reuters reports. The news service says six members of the religious group were convicted on similar charges in September, "receiving jail sentences of between two and three-and-a-half years."
The news service adds:
"The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah's Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.
"Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject."
Human Rights Watch says that about two weeks ago, police raided a campsite near the town of Norilsk in northern Russia where more than 50 Jehovah's Witnesses were gathered. Worshippers reportedly were interrogated for several hours.
"Members of the Jehovah's Witness community who are close to those who were at the campsite told Human Rights Watch that 15 armed and masked special operations police stormed loudly into the camp, photographed worshippers, and forced them to hand over all electronic devices and write down their passcodes," Human Rights Watch says.
As NPR reported in February, Dennis Christensen, a Danish Jehovah's Witness with a Russian residency permit, was sentenced to six years for promoting extremism.
Christensen was arrested in May 2017, roughly a month after the Russian ban on Jehovah's Witnesses went into effect. He maintains he was practicing his religion, something he said he was free to do under Russia's constitution.
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