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Religion

Religious Persecution in Russia: a Jehovah’s Witness on Trial

Dennis Christensen, a Jehovah’s Witness accused of extremism, leaves after a court session in handcuffs in the town of Oryol, Russia, January 14, 2019. (Andrew Osborn/Reuters File Photo)

Dennis Christensen, a Dane who moved to Russia in 1995, has been in custody by the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Russia for nearly two years. He faces charges for “extremism”; in Russia, being a practicing Jehovah’s Witness qualifies as extremism after a law was enacted in 2017 targeting them for being a threat to “public order and public security.” His case was initiated in May 2017, and last week was Christensen’s appeal hearing in Oryol.

According to Jarrod Lopes, spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses at the New York headquarters, May 7th was the first day of the hearing, where many came to support Christensen, including diplomats from Australia, Denmark, Sweden, as well as fellow Witnesses. On Wednesday, the court denied all petitions, including the defense’s motion to verify the “evidence” that formed the basis of the unjust verdict.

But Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative for the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brussels, tells National Review that it’s “difficult to expect an acquittal,” and attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to escalate following Christensen’s hearing. “The verdict of Dennis Christensen drew a wide response, after which authorities increased the pressure on Jehovah’s Witnesses.” he adds.

Christensen has faced four extensions of his detention, and the court requested he spend six years in prison — the verdict decided on February 6, 2019, which he appealed. On the day of his conviction, ten homes were raided and seven criminal cases were initiated, Lopes says. Between the verdict date and May 3rd, there was a surge in mass searches, arrests, and in Surgut, torture — nearly three times as many criminal cases were initiated in the three months following his conviction than the three months prior in 25 Russian cities. There have been 141 home raids, and 74 criminal cases similar to Christensen’s initiated.

“We have always said that the Dennis Christensen case is a precedent for other criminal cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia,” Sivulsky said.

In February 2017, the FSB began wiretapping Christensen until about two weeks before his arrest. The FSB also recorded a conversation between Christensen and theologian Oleg Kurdyumov from Oryol State University in an attempt to fabricate evidence against Christensen, and Kurdyumov later testified in court anonymously. On three different dates leading up to his arrest and beginning just after the wiretapping began, an FSB officer covertly surveilled Christensen.

As I described in a prior piece for National Review, Russian president Vladimir Putin had equivocated on the topic when pressed on it, and at the at the Presidential Human Rights Council meeting in December, Putin called the classification of Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists “complete nonsense.” “It is true that we should treat representatives of all religions the same,” he said, “but it is also necessary to take into account the country and the society in which we live.”

As of May 8th, 188 men and women are facing criminal charges in Russia and Crimea for their faith. Since April 2018, there hasn’t been a month without home raids — since the beginning of 2019, there have been over 100 home raids in nearly 20 regions of Russia and Crimea. In February 2019, seven Witnesses claimed they were tortured while in custody by the Russian Investigative Committee, reporting that they’d been strangled with plastic bags, doused with water, and tasered.

Following Putin’s support of legislation enacted in July 2016 that classifies Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists, Witnesses began fleeing Russia for refugee camps in Finland in search of freedom from persecution. In 2019, they only expect conditions to worsen. While Witnesses in Russia continue to face threats, there is growing awareness of their plight, and Lopes says that the world is watching.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) tweeted on May 7th that they are closely monitoring Christensen’s case, and that “his case is part of the Russian government’s crackdown on #Jehovah’sWitnesses and other faith communities persecuted under the guise of combating ‘extremism’”. John Hunstman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, described in an interview the state of religious freedom in Russia, saying that “We’re not only seeing religious organization shut down, we’re seeing individual members punished for their religious beliefs, which goes against everything we in the United States and a whole lot of other countries in this world stand for.” Amnesty International and the European Union both called for his immediate and unconditional release.

The appeal hearing was adjourned until this Thursday, when a decision is anticipated to be made, although Friday, May 17th is already on the schedule as a court date. 

Marlo Safi is a Collegiate Network Fellow with National Review.

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