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 alleged that the congregation’s religious services were 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 religious services. The Sovietskiy 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. His attorney filed a complaint against the court’s order, but on June 21, 2017, the court rejected the complaint and ordered that he remain in pretrial detention. Since then, the Sovietskiy District Court has twice extended his pretrial detention. On February 22, 2018, the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court of Oryol further extended his pretrial detention until August 1, 2018.

Mr. Christensen’s criminal trial began on February 26, 2018, and is currently in progress. If he is convicted under Article 282.2, part 1, of the Criminal Code, he could face a prison term of six to ten years.

Since Mr. Christensen is a Danish citizen, the Embassy of Denmark in Moscow was immediately notified at the time of his arrest. Danish officials have visited Mr. Christensen in prison and have been closely following his case. They report that prison authorities have not mistreated him and that he is in good condition.

Unjust Ruling of Russia’s Supreme Court

In the case to liquidate 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.

Time Line

  1. April 3, 2018

    Judge Rudnev of the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court again grants a motion by the defense for more time to review the case materials and adjourns case until April 23, 2018.

  2. February 26, 2018

    Criminal trial of Dennis Christensen begins in the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court. Judge Aleksey Rudnev grants a motion by the defense for more time to review the case materials and adjourns case until April 3, 2018.

  3. February 22, 2018

    Zheleznodorozhniy District Court of Oryol extends pretrial detention of Dennis Christensen until August 1, 2018.

  4. November 20, 2017

    Sovietskiy District Court extends pretrial detention of Dennis Christensen until February 23, 2018.

  5. September 28, 2017

    Oryol Regional Court denies appeal to release Dennis Christensen from pretrial detention.

  6. July 20, 2017

    Sovietskiy District Court extends pretrial detention of Dennis Christensen to November 23, 2017.

  7. June 21, 2017

    On appeal, the Oryol Regional Court orders that Dennis Christensen remain in pretrial detention.

  8. May 26, 2017

    Sovietskiy District Court of Oryol sentences Dennis Christensen to two months’ pretrial detention.

  9. May 25, 2017

    Religious services in Oryol raided, and Dennis Christensen arrested.