13 Jan 2023

Russian Jehovah's Witnesses seek refugee status so they won't have to fight in Ukraine

7:44 am on 13 January 2023

First published on Stuff

Volunteers and special force troopers are put through their paces during military training at a "Russian University of Special Forces" training centre in the town of Gudermes, in Chechnya, on December 14, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

Volunteers and special forces undergo military training at a "Russian University of Special Forces" training centre in Gudermes, in Chechnya in December. A New Zealand based Russian fears he would be conscripted for Russia's war in Ukraine if he returned to his native country. Photo: AFP

A Russian couple facing deportation from New Zealand have sought refugee status so that the husband would not be sent to war in Ukraine, which goes against their religion.

The couple, aged in their 40s and 50s, sought refugee status before the Immigration and Protection Tribunal in October 2022, according to a recently released judgment.

They feared deportation to Russia would see them persecuted due to their Jehovah's Witness faith, which the Russian Federation considered an extremist organisation.

The husband may also be liable for forcible conscription, which he would refuse on the grounds that Jehovah's Witnesses condemn war and oppose serving in the military.

"This would result in him being imprisoned, mistreated and then sent to the front line in any event. He fears he would be returned in a coffin, like his nephew who has been killed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine," the judgment read.

The couple arrived in New Zealand on visitor visas in 2019, wanting a break from the Russian authorities, whom they feared after the police raided and arrested a group of Jehovah's Witnesses during a meeting at their friend's apartment.

On the day the couple learnt their visas had been approved, the husband was accosted on the street by two police officers who beat and threatened him, the couple said.

"They accused him of being a follower of an undesirable religious organisation. The officers then tore his Bible," the judgment read.

"While the officers were attempting to force the husband into [their] car, he hit his head, and it started bleeding. The officers decided to release him instead of dealing with his injuries, but warned him he would go to prison next time."

The man required hospital treatment for his injuries. His wife was also hospitalised to have her blood pressure taken, as she was "deeply shaken" by the incident.

"At this point, they realised that they had been identified and were personally in danger. They needed to find safety permanently outside of Russia."

In New Zealand, the couple have been supported by fellow Jehovah's Witnesses, whom they considered as family, and started their own congregation.

The husband feared he would be forced to fight in the war against Ukraine if they returned to Russia.

The wife worried they would be targeted, imprisoned and harmed due to their religion.

"Nothing will stop the wife preaching and teaching people about God. That is the most important thing in the world."

The tribunal agreed the couple risked arbitrary imprisonment, torture, cruel and degrading treatment or death if they returned to Russia and granted them refugee status.

- This story first appeared on the Stuff website.

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