A Russian court has sentenced a Danish member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years on extremism charges in a case that has rekindled memories of the Soviet-era persecution of Christians and triggered widespread international criticism.
Dennis Christensen, a 46-year-old carpenter who has lived in Russia for more than two decades, was sentenced on Wednesday by a court in Oryol, a city some 200 miles south of Moscow.
The Danish national had spent almost two years in a pre-trial detention facility after being detained by armed police and officers from the FSB security service during a raid on a Jehovah’s Witness prayer hall in Oryol in May 2017.
Christensen is the first Jehovah’s Witness to be sentenced to prison in Russia since the country’s Supreme Court declared the pacifist Christian denomination an “extremist organization” in 2017, putting it on par with the Islamic State militant group and neo-Nazi movements.
The Supreme Court claims Jehovah’s Witnesses promote the “exclusivity and supremacy” of their beliefs.
Judges of Russia’s Supreme Court attend a hearing in Moscow on Jan. 23, 2014. Photo by Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Prosecutors said Christensen had organized the religious activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years behind bars. They did not cite, however, any specific examples of what exactly was “extremist” about his actions.
His wife, Irina Christensen, a Russian national, said the allegations against her husband were “absurd” and that he was a law-abiding person.
His attorney spoke to reporters in Moscow on Friday (Feb. 8).
“Nothing Christensen did posed any danger to society,” Anton Bogdanov, Christensen’s attorney, said at a press conference. Bogdanov also said that the court’s decision had effectively criminalized “peaceful religious practices” such as praying, singing hymns and Bible study.
Scores more Jehovah’s Witnesses have also been charged with participating in or organizing the group’s activities. Twenty-five Witnesses are behind bars awaiting trial or being tried, while another 24 are under house arrest.
There are an estimated 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Many converted to the faith after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Around 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses are estimated to have fled the country since the Supreme Court outlawed the group two years ago.
Many say they fear that their children could be taken away from them by the state.
The Kremlin’s crackdown on the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been accompanied by a wider state campaign against “foreign religions” amid tensions with the West over Syria and Ukraine.
In 2016, President Vladimir Putin, as part of vaguely worded anti-extremism and terrorism legislation, approved a law that outlawed missionary work carried out in Russia by groups like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.