A Danish national who lives in Russia as a Jehovah’s Witness has been jailed for six years after a court found him guilty of organising the activities of a banned extremist organisation.
- Russia outlawed the denomination in 2017 and forcibly acquired its property
- 46-year-old builder Dennis Christensen was Russia’s first extremism-related arrest
- He will appeal the ruling citing Russia’s constitutional religious freedoms
Armed police detained Dennis Christensen, a 46-year-old builder, in May 2017 at a prayer meeting in Oryol, some 320 kilometres south of Moscow, after a court in the region outlawed the local Jehovah’s Witnesses a year earlier.
Russia’s Supreme Court later ruled the group was an “extremist” organisation and ordered it to disband nationwide, and Christiansen’s detention, the first extremism-related arrest of a Jehovah’s Witness in Russia, foreshadowed dozens of similar cases.
A court in Oryol found Christiansen guilty on Wednesday after a long trial, reported his lawyer, wife and a spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Christiansen had pleaded not guilty, saying he had only been practising his religion, something he said was legal according to the Russian constitution which guarantees the right to practice any or no religion.
The United States-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Russian 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 Jehovah’s Witnesses reject.
More than 100 cases brought against Jehovah’s Witnesses
But Russia’s latest falling-out with the West, triggered by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, spurred a more determined drive to push out “the enemy within”.
After Crimea was seized, a giant poster hung in central Moscow bearing the faces of Kremlin critics and labelling them as “a fifth column”.
One of them, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, was later shot dead.
Anton Bogdanov, Christiansen’s lawyer, said he planned to appeal the verdict, which he described as an illegal decision and part of Russia’s fight against religious freedom.
He said he feared the verdict would set a dangerous precedent.
More than 100 criminal cases have been opened against Jehovah’s Witnesses and some of their publications are on a list of banned extremist literature.
Yaroslav Sivulsky, a Jehovah’s Witness representative, said the group was disappointed by what it regarded as an unjust verdict.
Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said there had clearly been reasons for Christiansen’s arrest, but that he was unaware of the details of the case.
The group has around 8 million active followers around the world and has faced court proceedings in several countries for a number issues such as its pacifism, its rejection of blood transfusions, and its failure to report child sexual abuse.