PREACHER SENTENCED FOR WORSHIP SERVICE
Danish Jehovist received six years in prison colony in Russia
by Andrei Prakh, Pavel Korobov
Kommersant, 6 February 2019
A Russian court today issued the first sentence of a follower of the religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses since it was ruled to be extremist on the territory of the Russian Federation. A citizen of Denmark, Dennis Christensen, received six years in a penal colony of general regime for reviving a liquidated cell of Jehovists in Orel and for the continuation of worship services. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Denmark expressed concern in connection this and urged Moscow to respect the right to freedom of religious confession. The Dane himself accused the F.S.B. of "psychological terrorism."
A large number of journalists, including foreigners, gathered for the announcement of Dennis Christensen's sentence. Almost half the places in the small room of the Zheleznodorozhny district court of Orel were occupied by representatives of news media and the rest by local adherents of Jehovah's Witnesses. They greeted the appearance of the elder in handcuffs with applause and the preacher himself was calm and smiled.
Dennis Christensen was accused of reviving the activity of the local religious organization "Jehovah's Witnesses Orel," which was ruled to be extremist in 2016. According to the account of law enforcers, the Dane was its actual leader and after the ban "he took direct actions of an organizational character" for continuing the work of the cell: he convened meetings, he arranged events and services, he distributed extremist literature, and he collected financing "in the form of donations." The Dane was charged with coordinating his actions with the central structure, the "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses," which also was banned by a court, and with receiving from it extremist materials and forms for refusing medical intervention, and also with transferring 63.9 thousand rubles to its account.
Worship services of Jehovah's Witnesses were conducted in the so-called Kingdom Hall, a private house that once belonged to the forbidden organization and subsequently to its founder. Dennis Christensen himself never figured in official documents of the local religious organization, although witnesses who were parishioners, neighbors, and even precinct police officers called him the actual leader of the congregation. After the ban, three "collective religious services" in Kingdom Hall were documented by the F.S.B. In them, the Dane "negatively characterized a group of persons on the basis of indicators of their attitude toward religion," and he spoke about the "godless world." In the opinion of the prosecution, the preacher understood that after the decision of the court, the activity of the local religious organization would be prosecuted and therefore he undertook measures of conspiracy: he arranged a guard at the gate of Kingdom Hall, that now admitted only devotees, and he also began distributing religious literature by electronic media.
Dennis Christensen's defense insisted that in the course of investigating the criminal case, law enforcers concentrated on a search for the organizational foundation of the Jehovists' worship services and not on extremist activity itself. Attorney Anton Bogdanov said that not one of the expert analyses that were conducted proved an incident of the distribution or possession by the Dane of forbidden literature. On the contrary, the preacher took pains so that such materials "under no circumstances" were brought into the Kingdom Hall. "The prosecution looks for some organizational activity in the conduct of worship services, but not actual extremism itself," the lawyer said during the debates.
Dennis Christensen himself spoke in court about "the clear manifestation of psychological terror" on the part of the F.S.B.: he allegedly was offered a short term (three and a half years in a penal colony) in exchange for cooperation with the investigation. "All the time I have felt that I have already been convicted in advance and that nothing now depends upon me. During this trial I have heard many times about extremism, but, honestly, it is hard for me to see and understand how all this was connected with me or with other peaceful Jehovah's Witnesses," the preacher said. "The oblast court liquidated the local religious organization 'Jehovah's Witnesses Orel,' which I and a majority of Jehovah's Witnesses in Orel had nothing to do with. But the F.S.B. thinks that this judicial decision is a law that forbids me to believe in God and to discuss my faith with other people."
In his last word, the Dane thanked the prosecutor, who visited him in the investigation cell, and also the judge, who in the course of the trial gave him the possibility of returning to the SIZO for dinner. "I sincerely hope that the court will protect the right to freedom of religious confession and will see that article 28 of the constitution of the Russian Federation will, in the future, operate for people of all confessions here, in Russia," he concluded. Nevertheless the court agreed practically completely with the position of the prosecutor's office, which requested six and a half years, and sentenced Dennis Christensen to six years in a penal colony of general regime. The defense declared that it will appeal the sentence.
The sentence for Dennis Christensen has already evoked a negative international reaction. Thus, the minister of foreign affairs of Denmark, Anders Samuelsen, expressed profound concern with what happened.
"We again urge Russia to respect freedom of religious confession. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark continues to follow the case closely and to provide Dennis Christensen support if he decides to file an appeal," the head of the ministry wrote on Twitter.
The Danish section of the rights advocacy organization Amnesty International recognized Dennis Christensen as a prisoner of conscience and called the trial "political prosecution."
The press secretary of the Russian president, Dmitry Peskov, did not want to comment on the guilty verdict, citing his ignorance of details, although he promised to clarify information. At the same time he noted that "in all likelihood, there were some reasons for the indictment."
"The political reason for the harsh sentence of Christensen, as well as the whole campaign against the Jehovists, was the fear of the centralized structure of the Jehovists and their American origins since the center of their administration is located in the U.S.A." Roman Lunkin, the director of the Center for the Study of Problems of Religion and Society of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, commented on the court's decision for Kommersant. "The gradual ruling, since 2009, of the literature and associations of Jehovists to be extremist (on the basis that they consider themselves to be 'the most true') led to the decision for their liquidation."
In Mr. Lunkin's opinion, "the paradox is that it is hard to call Dennis Christensen's sentence unjust, since it is based on the antiextremist legislation and the decision of the Russian Supreme Court finding the Jehovah's Witnesses organizations to be extremist. From the point of view of the investigation (and apparently this will be noted in the rationale portion of the judicial decision), the Dane directed the activity of a previously forbidden organization," the expert thinks. "This is the reason why the sentence seems so harsh. For the first time in Russia, a Jehovah's Witness has been sentenced to a real (and not suspended) term within the framework of a criminal case. The prosecutions of Jehovists are clear evidence of the violation of religious liberty in Russia, since any of their meetings and reading of the Bible in the Jehovist translation (the book was ruled extremist for far-fetched reasons) fall under suspicion and under the antiextremist legislation. The logic of the actions of law enforcement agencies made of them an example of pure persecution for faith, since the Jehovists, as law-abiding pacifists, cannot be convicted of anything illegal."
The European diplomatic service noted that the sentence affects Dennis Christensen's right to freedom of religious confession: "Nobody should be deprived of the freedom for peaceful expression of his religious convictions. The European Union awaits the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Christensen." (tr. by PDS, posted 7 February 2019)
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