Danish Jehovah’s Witness gets 6 years for ‘extremism’ in Russia
ORYOL, Russia – A Russian court on Wednesday sentenced a Jehovah’s Witness to six years in prison for “extremism”, in the first conviction of its kind since a 2017 law that outlawed the religious group.
Armed FSB officers detained Danish citizen Dennis Christensen in the southern Russian city of Oryol in May 2017, shortly after Moscow banned what it called an extremist organization.
“We deeply regret the conviction of Dennis Christensen — an innocent man who did not commit any real crime,” said Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who was in court.
“It is sad that reading the Bible, preaching, and living a moral way of life is again a criminal offense in Russia,” he added.
Christensen, who moved to southern Russia as an adult and has a Russian wife, insisted in closing remarks last week that he had “never committed any criminal acts”.
“I hope that today is the day that Russia defends freedom of religion,” he told journalists as he entered the packed courtroom on Wednesday.
An AFP photographer outside the courtroom saw Christensen, 46, being led past a group of supporters by police officers following the verdict.
“The sentence is ridiculous,” supporter Svetlana told AFP, declining to give her last name. “The only thing he was organizing was the collection of rubbish and snow-clearing.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, a US-based Christian evangelical movement, will appeal the verdict within 10 days, according to a statement from the organization’s head office.
Rights groups have condemned the trial, with Amnesty International saying it was “emblematic of the grave human rights violations” taking place in Russia.
Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen said he was “deeply concerned” by the sentencing.
“Again call on #Russia to respect freedom of religion. Danish MFA will continue to follow closely and assist Dennis Christensen should he decide to appeal,” Samuelsen wrote on Twitter.
In a statement on Wednesday, the EU said it “expects Mr. Christensen to be released immediately and unconditionally.”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses, as with all other religious groups, must be able to peacefully enjoy freedom of assembly without interference,” the statement added.
Authorities in 2017 amended an existing anti-extremism law to mention Jehovah’s Witnesses specifically, ordering their dissolution in Russia.
Since then a crackdown on believers has intensified, with around 90 criminal trials now pending across Russia, according to the group.
More than 20 properties belonging to the organization or its members have been confiscated by law enforcement, its head office said.
The 33-year-old leader of the Jehovah’s Witness organization in Ivanovo, northeast of Moscow, was arrested last week on extremism charges, Russian media reported.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses say they number more than 170,000 in Russia, a country of 144 million people where most are Orthodox Christians. Thousands more of their members have fled abroad.
Members of the group — a movement that began in the United States in the 19th century — consider modern Churches to have deviated from the Bible’s true teachings.
Among their strongest convictions is the rejection of evolutionary theory.
In a report last year, Human Rights Watch accused the Russian authorities of carrying out a “sweeping campaign” of harassment and persecution against the movement.
In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the dissolution six years earlier of the movement’s Moscow branch had violated the right to freedom of religion and association.
The powerful Russian Orthodox Church has spoken out against the group, with one Church official branding it a “destructive sect”. /cbb
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