The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Dennis Christensen
Dennis Christensen is a Danish citizen and Jehovah’s Witness who was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment on extremism charges (Criminal Code Article 282.2) in February 2019. His case has come to represent the ongoing persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.
In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses – the head office of the religion in Russia – was an extremist organization, effectively banning all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities in the country. A lower court had previously banned the local chapter of Jehovah’s Witnesses to which Christensen belonged. Christensen was arrested in May 2017 during a police raid on a Jehovah’s Witness service and charged with organizing the activities of an extremist organization. His allegedly unlawful actions included giving a sermon, discussing a religious publication, organizing worshipers to help with the upkeep of the building, and persuading other people to attend services. After spending 20 months in pretrial detention, he was convicted in February 2019 and sentenced to six years in prison.
Christensen’s conviction and the 2017 Supreme Court ruling are only recent high-profile examples of the long-standing persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. By some accounts, the Government has treated them as violent fundamentalists since at least 2004. Beginning in 2007, local courts started banning local Jehovah’s Witness organizations as extremist and numerous pieces of Jehovah’s Witness literature were placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Forum 18, a news service focused on freedom of religion, has documented more than 120 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who are under criminal investigation, on trial, or serving a criminal sentence on extremism-related charges. Those that are detained have been recognized as political prisoners. Some of these individuals have been brutally tortured to force them to disclose information about their meetings and leadership.
Christensen’s conviction, and the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses more generally, have been widely criticized. Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, declared: “The harsh sentence imposed on Christensen . . . effectively criminalizes the right to freedom of religion . . . for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.” The corapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that monitor Russia said that “Christensen’s conviction and imprisonment for nothing more than peacefully practising his faith is an unacceptable violation of the right to freedom of religion.” In July 2018, the European Union expressed concern about “reports of continued systematic persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, including police raids of private homes, intimidation, arbitrary detentions and criminal prosecution.” In September, six UN Special Procedures relayed their “concern at the arrest and detention of members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious minority on the basis of legislation on counter extremism, and at the raids against their homes.” The UK Foreign Office said that the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling “effectively criminalizes the peaceful worship of 175,000 Russian citizens and contravenes the right to religious freedom.” Amnesty International has designated “Dennis Christensen and all Jehovah’s Witnesses deprived of right to liberty solely in connection with the peaceful exercise of their right to religion” as prisoners of conscience.