(Moscow) – Russian authorities should drop the charges against a Jehovah’s Witness adherent for practicing his faith and release him immediately, Human Rights Watch said today.
On April 3, 2018, a criminal court in Orel is slated to begin the trial of Dennis Christensen, a 46-year old Danish citizen who has been in pretrial custody for nearly 11 months. If convicted on charges of organizing activities of an “extremist organization,” he faces up to 10 years in prison.
“Russian authorities are seeking to punish a Jehovah’s Witness for exercising his right to practice his religion,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “From the start, investigators have been warping Dennis Christensen’s peaceful participation in his faith to make it appear criminal. He did nothing wrong and should be freed.”
In 2016, a local court banned the Orel Jehovah’s Witness organization as an “extremist religious organization.”
Police in Orel arrested Christensen, who has had a Russian residence permit since 2000, on May 25, 2017, during a raid by riot police on a Jehovah’s Witness worship service. Christensen, a Jehovah’s Witness elder, had given a sermon during the service. He was not on the staff of the Jehovah’s Witness organization, but had unlocked the building where the members had gathered.
Authorities charged Christensen with “organizing activities of a religious organization that has been declared extremist.” The charge sheet, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, states that he was “actively involved in organizational work aimed at continuing the unlawful activities of the [banned Orel Jehovah’s Witness organization].”
Christensen’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the charges stem from Christensen’s actions on May 25 and from two previous incidents, in February 2017, when Christensen participated in discussions about a religious publication. They are also linked to Christensen’s role in organizing worshippers to help with the upkeep of their place of worship before the court ruling banning the organization entered into force in July 2017, and to persuading several other people to worship with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
An April 2017 Russian Supreme Court ruling banned all Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations throughout Russia. The ruling declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, closed the organization on those grounds, and banned the religious group’s activities throughout Russia. The Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center was the head office for 395 Jehovah’s Witnesses branches throughout Russia.
In recent months, Jehovah’s Witness worshippers in several other Russian cities have faced raids and criminal charges.
In January 2018, law enforcement officials in the Kemerovo region searched 15 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses as part of a criminal investigation into the religious group. The Jehovah’s Witnesses organization said that in some cases investigators forced their way into apartments with the help of armed members of the Interior Ministry Rapid Deployment Task Force, and National Guard troops. The Kemerovo branch of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s criminal investigation service, said that investigators confiscated phones, electronic devices, computers, hard drives, and personal objects. The investigation is ongoing.
Further searches were carried out on February 7 among Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgorod. Police searched 16 apartments, fingerprinted residents, and confiscated Bibles, electronic devices, hard drives, and passports. The lawyer for Anatolii Shalyapin and Sergei Volkov, who were detained during the raids, told Human Rights Watch that the two were held for two days and then released, and are suspects in a criminal extremism case.
Previously, in November 2015 a court in Tangarog found 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses guilty of extremism for continuing to gather for worship after a court had banned the local organization in 2009. They received suspended sentences and fines.
Russia, as a member of the Council of Europe and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, is obligated to protect the rights to freedom of religion and association. The government has previously been found to be in violation of the European Convention for actions taken through the courts to dissolve communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow v. Russia, application no. 302/02).
The case against Christensen and the raids against Jehovah’s Witness adherents violate the right to freedom of religion, denying them the right to worship, and cannot be justified as either a necessary or proportionate measure to protect public safety or public order, Human Rights Watch said. Christensen has filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights alleging among other things that his arrest constituted unlawful interference with his right to freedom of religion.
“The Russian authorities’ ruthless persecution of Jehovah’s Witness adherents has been picking up steam,” Denber said. “Dropping the case against Christensen would be a good first step toward ending the raids and other criminal cases against people who are merely practicing their faith.”