The husband seeking refugee status in New Zealand feared being conscripted into the Russian army, like these men being blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest in Moscow. Photo / The New York Times
A Russian couple have been granted refugee status after telling a tribunal they feared persecution as Jehovah’s Witnesses if they were sent back to their home country.
The husband, 49, who had military experience before converting to the pacifist religious group, also said he feared being conscripted by the Russian army for the war in Ukraine.
The decision by the Immigration and Protection Tribunal found the couple were refugees under the 1951 international Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The couple, who came from a Russian city on the border of Ukraine, were not named in the tribunal decision, and details that may identify them were omitted.
However, tribunal member Louise Moor said the couple were a husband and wife who had previously had their application for refugee status turned down by an official. They appealed to the tribunal.
Moor said that the couple were introduced to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ faith in the United States in 1997 and were baptised into it in 2003.
“Since that time, they have been active and genuine followers of the faith, attending Kingdom Halls in the US, Russia, New Zealand and parts of Europe.
“They have engaged in public preaching or ‘ministry’ including through conversations with friends, family and strangers, visiting people’s homes and businesses and sending letters,” Moor said.
The couple were living in Russia when the religion was banned there in 2017.
Since then, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia have been subject to raids, arrests and imprisonment, with the state often prosecuting the faith’s followers under extremism laws.
The husband was detained and injured by police officers who had seen him reading his Bible.
The couple have a daughter living in the US and a son living in Mexico, who left Russia to avoid military service, which is contrary to his religious beliefs. A nephew of the couple had been killed fighting in Ukraine.
Moor said the husband completed military service in Russia during the 1990s and feared that he would be subject to conscription if he returned. In that case, he would refuse to serve because of his religious beliefs.
“This would result in him being imprisoned, mistreated and sent to the front line in any event,” Moor said.
Moor said that the husband had previously undergone a sham marriage in a bid to gain residency in the United States, and had spent eight months in an immigration detention centre there. He was deported back to Russia in 2007.
The couple left Russia fearful for their safety in 2019 and arrived in New Zealand on visitors’ visas.
Moor said the wife was very anxious about their safety should they be forced to return to Russia.
“However, she is deeply committed to her faith and will continue to preach and share the word of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite any risk,” she said.
“In terms of Russia’s war with the Ukraine, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they try to keep neutral and not become involved in politics.
“However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses condemn any war and oppose serving in the military. In Russia, she would not voice these opinions about the war, out of fear of the consequences should she speak out.”
Moor found that the couple were refugees within the meaning of the Refugee Convention, which aims to protect people persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.