Their arrests follow the jailing of Danish-born Dennis Christensen, a Danish national, by a Russian court in the city of Oryol on February 19. The case dated back to May 2017 when Christensen was arrested by Russia’s FSB security service agents after they raided a peaceful religious meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol.
Christensen was convicted on grounds of ‘organising extremist activity’ although he insists he was merely exercising his right to freedom of religion as a Jehovah’s Witness. A number of other criminal cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently pending.
The same court also ordered the liquidation of the local organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
His arrest comes amid the current repression of religious minorities in Russia with other cases involving five Scientologists who were detained and have been awaiting trial for more than a year and half in St. Petersburg. One of the accused, Ivan Matsitsky, has been identified as a prisoner of conscience by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and all five have been recognised by Russia’s Memorial Human Rights Center as political prisoners.
According to the investigation, Christensen was, with others, suspected of conducting religious services which were interpreted as “organising the activity of an extremist organisation”.
The Dane first went to Russia in 1999 when he moved to the northern city of Murmansk, near the Arctic Circle. There he met his future wife, Irina who had recently become a Jehovah’s Witness. They married in 2002 and in 2006 they moved to Oryol where he worked as an entrepreneur, offering his services as a builder and master of interior renovations. The 47-year-old won praise for improving the children’s playground in the courtyard of his building and condemnation over his jailing has been swift.
Memorial, a Russian civil rights society, demanded that he and other imprisoned Jehova’s Witnesses be released.
Its statement condemned the “shameful and illegal decision which has brought Russia into line with countries that are notorious for the most odious regimes. Jehovah’s Witnesses were brutally persecuted in Nazi Germany, but in democratic countries, Jehovah’s Witnesses are allowed to operate freely. A six-year sentence for exercising their constitutional right to freedom of worship is comparable to the punishment that Jehovah’s Witnesses received in Soviet times.”
Referring to the “persecution” of Jehovah’s Witnesses the group said, “There are hundreds of ruined lives due to this. It is absurd when Jehovah’s Witnesses who were convicted by the old Soviet regime are also recognised as victims of political repression by Russia’s Law on Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repressions (1991), but at the same time, current followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are sent to prison.”
“This verdict again proves the shortcomings of Russian anti-extremist legislation which means almost everyone can be added to the list of extremists. We demand to lift the unconstitutional ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
The EU issued a statement saying that no one should be imprisoned for peaceful acts of worship in the expression of their religious beliefs. Brussels also said in its statement that it “expects Mr Christensen to be released immediately and unconditionally. Jehovah’s Witnesses, as with all other religious groups, must be able to peacefully enjoy freedom of assembly without interference, as guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, as well as by Russia’s international commitments and international human rights standards.”
Further criticism came from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which urged Russia to drop all charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“The harsh sentence imposed on Christensen creates a dangerous precedent and effectively criminalises the right to freedom of religion or belief for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. We urge the Government of Russia to revise the Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activity with a view to clarifying the vague and open-ended definition of ‘extremist activity’, and ensuring that the definition requires an element of violence or hatred. We also call on the authorities to drop charges against him and to release all those detained for exercising their rights to freedom of religion or belief, the freedom of opinion and expression and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
The demands were echoed by a delegation of the European Union to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
In December, in a reference to the perceived persecution of religious groups in Russia, the country’s president Vladimir Putin said, “We have to investigate this carefully”.
Putin added that the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are included on the list of extremist organisations was “nonsense.”
National pride, both in hosting the world’s sporting event, the 2018 World Cup, and the success of the home team, had fueled an optimism around Russia.
It had also raised hopes that the country might be set on a new path of openness and transparency.
But repeated reports of assorted attacks on religious groups in Russia have merely served to dash such hopes, leading to fears of a new purge on freedom of speech.