Prisoner of conscience must be released

RUSSIA-RIGHTS-RELIGION-TRIAL - © MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images
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Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced persecution and harassment in modern Russia since 2009, when a court in Rostov Region in southern Russia banned the local Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organization and declared 34 of their publications “extremist”. In subsequent years, several Jehovah’s Witnesses’ groups across Russia were pronounced “extremist” by local courts. Their prosecution was based on the vague definition of “extremism” in Russian law, in line with the growing practice of its vague application which increasingly targeted political, but also religious and other forms of dissent. In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the central Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Russia should be closed, its activities stopped, and its property confiscated. This effectively banned all local groups. Since then, any activity on behalf of a local Jehovah’s Witnesses group has been regarded as criminal. 

Dennis Christensen – a Danish national who has been living in Russia for over 20 years – was arrested a month after the Supreme Court’s decision in 2017, becoming the first Jehovah’s Witness to be detained in Russia following the ban. On 6 February 2019, the Zheleznodorznyi District Court in Orel found Dennis Christensen guilty of “organizing activities of an extremist organization” (Article 282.2 (1) of the Russian Criminal Code) and sentenced him to six years in prison. According to the prosecution, Dennis Christensen was organizing local worship by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and as evidence of his “crime” he was collecting donations and organizing cleaning of the venue used by the worshipers. On 23 May, the Orel Regional Court upheld the sentence and he was then transported to the correctional penal colony No 3 in Kursk region, some 200 km away from his home in Orel. 

There, Dennis Christensen has reportedly faced harassment by the penal colony administration, including via unsubstantiated reprimands for alleged regime violations. His previous applications for parole or easing of the regime have been rejected. Although Dennis has not fully recovered from a pneumonia he suffered at the end of 2019, the prison administration is not providing him with the adequate medical care he requires and has reportedly “lost” his medical file. 

In June 2017, Dennis Christensen filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights against his arrest. Subsequently, the Kingdom of Denmark joined Christensen v. Russia as the third party. The complaint is known to have passed the communication stage.

According to the data provided by the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization, since Dennis Christensen’s conviction, the reprisals against its members in Russia have intensified. As of 9 June, criminal proceedings have been opened against at least 346 Jehovah’s Witnesses under “extremism” charges, and at least 170 individuals have spent time in pre-trial detention. Ten people have been convicted. At least 20 people were remanded in custody as of 9 June, and 22 individuals were under house arrest. At least 927 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been raided since the 2017 Supreme Court ruling, including 126 homes raided in 2020 – even during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Amnesty International considers the Russian authorities’ decision to criminalise Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teachings and practices an arbitrary and discriminatory measure, and a violation of the right to freedom of religion. The organization has called on the authorities to quash these decisions. It has also consistently stressed that anti-extremism legislation in Russia is often applied arbitrarily and has called on the authorities to review the relevant legislation and practice and bring them in line with international standards. Amnesty International considers Dennis Christensen and any Jehovah’s Witness deprived of their liberty solely in connection with the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of religion to be prisoners of conscience. They must be immediately and unconditionally released, all convictions quashed and all pending charges against them dropped.
 

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