U.S. Department of State
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
Statement by Morgan Ortagus, Spokesperson
September 10, 2019
The Department is publicly designating Vladimir Petrovich Yermolayev, the Head of the Investigative Committee in the city of Surgut, Russia, and Stepan Vladimirovich Tkach, Senior Investigator at the Investigative Committee of Surgut, Russia, under Section 7031(c) of the FY2019 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, due to their involvement in gross violations of human rights. Section 7031(c) provides that, in cases where the Secretary of State has credible information that foreign officials have been involved in significant corruption or a gross violation of human rights, those individuals and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States.
The Department has credible information that Yermolayev and Tkach were involved in torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Surgut, Russia. On February 15, 2019, officers of the Surgut Investigative Committee, led by Yermolayev and Tkach, subjected at least seven Jehovah’s Witnesses to suffocation, electric shocks, and severe beatings during interrogation at the Committee’s headquarters. This brutality stands in marked contrast to the peaceful practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been criminally prosecuted for their religious beliefs in Russia since a 2017 Supreme Court decision affirming their wrongful designation as an “extremist organization.”
Despite posing no threat to Russia’s national security, over 60 Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently awaiting trial on criminal charges in prison or under house arrest, with approximately 250 more currently under investigation. In February 2019, Jehovah’s Witness Dennis Christensen was given a six-year prison term merely for practicing his faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses also frequently face property seizure, police raids, discrimination, and other forms of pressure from the state. These developments underscore the increasingly repressive environment faced by religious minorities in the Russian Federation, which led to the Department adding Russia to the International Religious Freedom Special Watch List in 2018.
Russia should end its unjust campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and immediately release the over 200 individuals it currently has imprisoned for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. We further call on the Russian authorities to end the culture of impunity for torture and hold officials accountable for abuses, including those perpetrated against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Surgut.