A Russian court has sentenced a Jehovah’s Witness to six years in prison for promoting extremism.
“I hope today is the day Russia defends religious freedom,” Dennis Christensen, who pleaded not guilty in the trial, said as he walked down the hall of the courthouse before the verdict was read.
A Danish citizen with a Russian residency permit, Christensen was arrested at a worship service in May 2017 by armed police in the western city of Orel. He had unlocked the entrance to the building and delivered a sermon that day but he was not a staff member of the organization, according Human Rights Watch.
A local court had banned his chapter of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization the previous year. A month before his arrest, the Supreme Court banned the Christian denomination as an extremist group, classifying it on par with the Islamic State. That ruling dealt a blow to the nearly 400 chapters of Jehovah’s Witnesses across the country.
Christensen spent 20 months in pretrial custody. In court, a “secret witness” accused him of being a leader in the city’s Jehovah’s Witness chapter. Prosecutors presented transcripts from intercepted phone calls with other worshipers, including conversations about shoveling snow at their place of worship.
Christensen maintained that he was practicing his religion, which is protected by Russia’s constitution.
In his last words before the deliberation began, he thanked his wife and friends for their support. Then he told prosecutors, “I do not agree with you in this matter at all, neither in your accusations, nor in your unfounded conclusions.” He called it “absolutely silly and insane.”
His wife, Irina Christensen, told reporters, “The same thing could happen to any of us.”
Russian authorities have targeted more than 100 Jehovah’s Witnesses with charges of extremism since the Supreme Court ban — conducting hundreds of raids, interrogations and acts of harassment, according to Human Rights Watch. There are 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses in detention, waiting for trials on extremism charges, and another 25 under house arrest, the organization says. Read more