A court in Oryol has sentenced a local Jehovah's Witnesses elder to six years in prison for alleged extremist activity. Before hearing his verdict, Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen, told reporters that he hoped Russia would observe his right to religious freedom. Prosecutors say he “used his authority as a religious leader” and “kept the [Oryol Jehovah's Witnesses] organization operating, despite being aware of its prohibition.”
Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, called the verdict “regrettable,” describing Christensen as “an innocent man who did not commit any real crime.” “It is sad that reading the bible, preaching, and living a moral way of life is again a criminal offense in Russia,” Sivulskiy said in a public statement on Wednesday.
Oryol courts banned Jehovah's Witnesses in 2016, a year before Russia’s Supreme Court outlawed the religious group as an extremist organization. Since the national ban, more than 80 criminal cases have been filed against Jehovah's Witnesses across Russia. In December 2018, President Vladimir Putin said the outlawing of Jehovah's Witnesses as an extremist group is “complete nonsense” and promised to address the issue.
Dennis Christensen moved to Russia in 1999, settling in Murmansk, where he met his future wife, a recent convert to the Jehovah's Witnesses. They married in 2002 and four years later moved to Oryol, where Christensen works as a private contractor. He was detained by police in late May 2017, becoming the first Jehovah's Witness to be arrested after the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling.