Dennis Christensen, a Jehovah’s Witness, was sentenced today to 6 years in prison for organizing religious activities for the Oryol Jehovah’s Witnesses, which a court in Russia designated “extremist”.
A Russian district court in Oryol on Wednesday found a Danish Jehovah’s Witness guilty of organizing the activity of an extremist organization and sentenced him to six years in prison.
The 46-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, Dennis Christensen, was detained by armed police during a police raid on a local prayer meeting he was leading in May 2017. Christensen argued that he was exercising freedom of religion guaranteed in Russia’s constitution. During the trial, the court barred Christensen’s defense from including questions about a secret witness’s identity, even though they might have been material to challenging the witness’s testimony.
Under article 282.2(1) of the Russian Criminal Code, it is illegal to “organize activities of a religious organization that has been declared extremist.” Prior to this case, the Russian Supreme Court ruled Jehovah’s Witnesses to be an extremist organization in 2017. The court therefore charged Christensen with “actively involved in organizational work aimed at continuing the unlawful activities of the banned Orel Jehovah’s Witness organization.”
As a member of the Council of Europe and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia is obligated to protect the rights to freedom of religion and association. Nevertheless, Russia has previously been held by the European Court of Human Rights to be in violation of the European Convention for actions taken through the courts to dissolve communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christensen has filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights alleging that his arrest constitutes unlawful interference with his right to freedom of religion and it’s a serious violation of human rights.
The Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen said in a statement that he was “deeply concerned” by the sentencing and called on Russia to respect freedom of religion.
Evidence at trial included testimony by a secret witness who, the Jehovah’s Witness organization said, claimed that Christensen was a key Jehovah’s Witness leader in Orel. During the trial, Christensen said he knew the “secret witness” and identified him as religious studies graduate and specialist in non-Orthodox “heresies.” However, the court barred the defense from including questions about his identity, even though they might have been material to challenging his testimony. Other evidence included, during a closed court hearing, transcripts from tapped phone calls between Christensen and other worshipers, and also witnesses who described the process of upkeep of the courtyard, such as shoveling snow, at the place of worship.
An April 2017 Russian Supreme Court ruling banned all Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations throughout Russia. The ruling declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, closed the organization on those grounds, and banned the group’s activities throughout the country. The Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center was the head office for 395 Jehovah’s Witnesses branches in Russia.
Twenty-two Jehovah’s Witnesses remain in custody in Russia, awaiting trial on extremism charges, and 25 are under house arrest. Law enforcement officers have carried out hundreds of searches, raids, interrogations, and other acts of harassment and persecution. The most recent wave took place on January 20, in Sakhalin, in Russia’s Far East, where police searched several homes and interrogated Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The trial of Sergey Skrynnikov, another Jehovah’s Witness worshipper in Orel, is also currently under way. On December 27, 2018, a court in Kabardino-Balkaria convicted Arkady Akopyan, 70, on extremism charges for allegedly getting people to distribute “extremist” Jehovah’s Witness literature. The court sentenced Akopyan to 120 hours of community service.
In a December meeting of Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council, in response to a question about the prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, President Vladimir Putin said that people of different faiths should be treated equally. He also said, “We need to consider the society and country we live in. But in no way does this mean that we should treat people from other religious persuasions as [from] destructive or terrorist organizations. This is utter nonsense and we need to get to the bottom of it.”
Putin should explicitly call for prosecutors to withdraw extremism charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses, Human Rights Watch said.
In June, Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council said that the crackdown echoed Soviet-era religious repression and asked the prosecutor general’s office to verify the legality of criminal prosecutions against Jehovah’s Witnesses practicing their faith.
Russia, as a member of the Council of Europe and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, is obligated to protect the rights to freedom of religion and association. The government has previously been found to be in violation of the European Convention for actions taken through the courts to dissolve communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow v. Russia, application no. 302/02).
The case against Christensen and the raids against Jehovah’s Witness adherents violate the right to freedom of religion, denying them the right to worship, and cannot be justified as either a necessary or proportionate measure to protect public safety or public order, Human Rights Watch said. Christensen has filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights alleging, among other things, that his arrest constitutes unlawful interference with his right to freedom of religion.
“Prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses on extremism charges is a serious human rights violation,” Denber said. “It’s absurd that Russian authorities are wasting taxpayer money on things like figuring out who shoveled snow in the congregation’s courtyard.”