As I sat in the courtroom just a few feet from Dennis Christensen, the man on trial, I marveled at how cheerful he looked, standing in the glass-enclosed defendant’s “cage.”
Christensen has been behind bars for almost two years and is now facing six-and-a-half years in prison. And for what? Theft? Kidnapping? No. His “crime” is organizing religious activities for the Oryol Jehovah’s Witnesses, which a court designated “extremist” in 2016.
Christensen, a Danish citizen, has been living in Russia for 19 years. Others who have been observing the trial, which has now dragged on for 74 hearings, told me he has been positive and strong throughout, as he was when I sat so close to him last week.
On Wednesday, the defense finished its closing arguments, and the judge gave the floor to Christensen for his final statement before the verdict on February 6.
“[People are being] prosecuted and charged with extremism, because they follow the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion,” Christensen said in his statement, which I managed to hear a recording of shortly after he delivered it. “Six and a half years for nothing… for being an honest man who respects the law… for being a religious believer who loves his neighbor as himself… who is a good neighbor who helped to build a playground for children… for being a Jehovah’s Witness … for exercising article 28 of the Russian constitution [which guarantees freedom of religion].”
Christensen is right. The constitution does protect the right to gather and discuss religion. So how are his actions – discussing a religious publication, organizing people to look after the Jehovah’s Witnesses place of worship, asking people to worship with Jehovah’s Witnesses – a crime?
You need to ask the Russian government for their justification. Christensen is one of about 100 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia facing criminal “extremism” charges. At least 22 are in pretrial custody. Despite violating fundamental international norms on freedom of religion, belief, expression, and association, the crackdown has been going on since a 2017 Russian Supreme Court ruling banning the Jehovah’s Witness organization throughout Russia.
On Wednesday, the judge also extended Christensen’s pretrial detention until May 1. It was yet another absurd and sad moment in a sadly, infuriatingly absurd trial.