On May 25, 2017, heavily armed police officers and agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) disrupted a peaceful weekly religious service of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol, Russia. Since authorities there had liquidated the Oryol Local Religious Organization (LRO) in June 2016 on extremism charges, they now allege that the congregation’s religious services are continuing the activity of an extremist organization.
The prosecutor initiated criminal charges against Dennis Christensen, one of the elders in the Oryol Congregation, for his role in the congregation’s worship services. The Sovietsky District Court ordered that Mr. Christensen be held in pretrial detention until July 23, 2017, allowing time for the FSB to gather evidence and find witnesses to establish their case against him. A complaint against the court’s order was filed on May 29, 2017. At a hearing on June 21, 2017, the court rejected the complaint and ordered that Mr. Christensen remain in pretrial detention. On July 20, 2017, the Sovietskiy District Court of Oryol extended the pretrial detention of Dennis Christensen to November 23, 2017. If convicted under Article 282.2, part 1, of the Criminal Code, Mr. Christensen could face a prison term of from six to ten years.
The Embassy of Denmark in Moscow was immediately notified of the arrest of Mr. Christensen, a Danish citizen, and representatives were sent to meet with him in prison. They report that he has not been mistreated and is in good condition.
Unjust Ruling of Russia’s Supreme Court
In the case of liquidating the Oryol LRO, officers inspected its house of worship and “found” Bible literature previously planted by officers, although the Witnesses had long before removed all literature from the building. Prosecutors construed the presence of just a few books as evidence of “storage for the purpose of mass distribution of literature declared to be extremist material.” On appeal, the Russian Federation Supreme Court upheld the liquidation of the Oryol LRO.
In March 2017, Russia’s Ministry of Justice brought its case against the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses and all remaining LROs. In response to the April 20, 2017, decision of the Russian Federation Supreme Court that effectively bans their worship in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed an appeal. The Witnesses object to the application of the term “extremism” to their peaceful way of life. As was the case in Oryol, the “evidence” against them was fabricated by the illegal actions of officers of the law and by misrepresentation of their religious literature by State-appointed “experts.” However, on July 17, 2017, the Supreme Court confirmed its April 20 decision.
Efforts to Defend Religious Freedom
The efforts of the prosecutor in Oryol show that some Russian authorities intend, not merely to shut down the legal entities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but to deny them the right to worship in Russia. When the religious service of May 25, 2017, was raided, the congregants in Oryol were meeting for worship as a group of like-minded Bible students, not in support of a legal entity.
Lawyers for Mr. Christensen have exhausted available appeals within Russia to end his pretrial detention but continue to defend his religious activity as well as that of the entire community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. An application in the name of Mr. Christensen is among 31 applications pending with the European Court of Human Rights on cases arising from Russia’s attack on the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
September 28, 2017
Oryol Regional Court denies appeal to release Dennis Christensen from pretrial detention.
July 20, 2017
Sovietskiy District Court extends the pretrial detention of Dennis Christensen to November 23, 2017.
June 21, 2017
On appeal, court orders that Dennis Christensen remain in pretrial detention.
May 26, 2017
Court sentences Dennis Christensen to two months’ pretrial detention.
May 25, 2017
Religious services in Oryol raided, and Dennis Christensen arrested.