Everything seemed to be in place for Dennis Christensen to leave a Russian prison in early July. On June 23, a judge paroled him, after he served half of a 6-year sentence, while also ordering him to pay a 400,00 ruble (US$5,714) fine. Mr. Christensen was indefensibly prosecuted on charges of “extremism” because of the way he practices religion as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Today, Christensen’s lawyer, Anton Bogdanov, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the prosecutor’s office has appealed the grant of parole, arguing Christensen allegedly violated prison rules. He will remain in custody until a court hearing on the appeal, which could be as late as August.
Meanwhile, three days after being granted parole, prison officials had sent Christensen to a poorly ventilated punishment cell. According to Bogdnaov, prison officials claimed Christensen had removed his prison jacket in the dormitory, which was very hot, and ate when he was not supposed to, both violations of prison rules.
This is, of course, completely outrageous. But no less outrageous than the original charges against Christensen.
To put his outrageous prosecution and sentence into context, in Russia, grievous bodily harm draws a maximum 8-year sentence; kidnapping, 5 years; and rape, 3 to 6.
Mr. Christensen’s alleged “crimes” were participating in discussions about a religious publication, helping organize worshipers to maintain the upkeep of their place of worship, and persuading people to worship with him.
In 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court banned all Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations. The ruling declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, closed it, and banned the group’s activities. The ruling was a serious violation of religious freedom.
Mr. Christensen was the first person to receive an active prison sentence following this ruling. At least nine others are now serving prison terms for similar “crimes.” More than 350 people in Russia are under criminal investigation for their involvement in Jehovah’s Witnesses activities, 24 of whom are in pretrial detention. Dozens of trials are ongoing.
In June, a court sentenced Gennady Shpakovsky to 6 and a half years in prison, the longest sentence handed to a Jehovah’s Witness so far.
Russia has absolutely nothing to gain from the pointless, cruel, and abusive persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The authorities should immediately free Christensen and stop wasting time and resources on these prosecutions.