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Russia: A Danish Jehovah’s Witness released after five years in prison

Willy Fautre
Willy Fautrehttps://www.hrwf.eu
Willy Fautré, former chargé de mission at the Cabinet of the Belgian Ministry of Education and at the Belgian Parliament. He is the director of Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), an NGO based in Brussels that he founded in December 1988. His organization defends human rights in general with a special focus on ethnic and religious minorities, freedom of expression, women’s rights and LGBT people. HRWF is independent from any political movement and any religion. Fautré has carried out fact-finding missions on human rights in more than 25 countries, including in perilous regions such as in Iraq, in Sandinist Nicaragua or in Maoist held territories of Nepal. He is a lecturer in universities in the field of human rights. He has published many articles in university journals about relations between state and religions. He is a member of the Press Club in Brussels. He is a human rights advocate at the UN, the European Parliament and the OSCE.

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After five years spent in prison, Dennis Christensen was released this Tuesday 24th May. He is expected to be deported to Denmark on Wednesday morning.

Dennis Christensen has served 5 years of his 6-year sentence. This is because his two years in pretrial detention counts as three years towards his sentence.

He was the first to be arrested and sentenced to prison following the April 2017 Russian Supreme Court ruling that liquidated the Witnesses legal entities. He has been in prison the longest, although in recent years others have been sentenced to longer terms, as much as eight years.

Dennis Christensen was born in Copenhagen (Denmark) in 1972 into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In 1991 he graduated from the courses of carpentry and in 1993 he received a diploma of construction technician at the Higher School of Craftsmen in Haslev (Denmark).

In 1995 he went to St. Petersburg to volunteer in the construction of Jehovah’s Witnesses buildings in Solnechnoye. In 1999 he moved to Murmansk where he met his future wife Irina, who by then had become a Jehovah’s Witness relatively recently. They got married in 2002, and in 2006 decided to move south to Oryol.

On February 6, 2019, the Zheleznodorozhny District Court found Christensen guilty of extremism. He was sentenced to 6 years in prison to be served in a penal colony located in Lgov (Kursk region). On May 23, 2019, the Court of Appeal upheld this verdict.

Christensen Timeline

  • May 25, 2017, he was arrested and detained when heavily armed police officers and Federal Security Service (FSB) raided a peaceful weekly religious service of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol, Russia.
  • May 26, 2017, he was ordered to be held in pretrial detention.
  • February 6, 2019, he was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.
  • May 23, 2019, he lost his appeal.

2017 Russian Supreme Court Ruling

·         The April 20, 2022, Supreme Court ruling, albeit grossly unjust, simply liquidated all of the Witnesses’ legal entities, Local Religious Organizations (LROs), in Russia and Crimea, declaring them “extremist”. During the 2017 Supreme Court hearing, the Russian government claimed that individual Witnesses would be free to practice their faith. However, the government’s claim of allowing freedom to worship has been inconsistent with its actions.

o   Additional references (link1link2)

Home Raids, Criminal Cases, and Imprisonment (Russia + Crimea)

1755 homes raided, almost one per day, since the 2017 Supreme Court ruling

625 JWs involved in 292 criminal cases

91 total in prison, over 325 have spent some time behind bars

o   23 convicted and sentenced to prison

o   68 in pretrial detention facilities awaiting conviction or have been convicted but awaiting results of first appeal

Longest, harshest prison sentence

§  Male: 8 years—Aleksey BerchukRustam DiarovYevgeniy Ivanov, and Sergey Klikunov

§  Female: 6 years—Anna Safronova

§  In comparison, according to Article 111 Part 1 of the Criminal Code, grievous bodily harm draws a maximum of 8 years sentence; Article 126 Part 1 of the Criminal Code, kidnapping leads to up to 5 years in prison; Article 131 Part 1 of the Criminal Code, rape is punishable with 3 to 6 years in 

§  The terms escalated in 2021.  Previous years the maximum sentence was 6.5, but in 2021 it jumped to 8 years, as noted above

§  Number of prison sentences annually steadily increased: 2019-2, 2020—4, 2021—27

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