MAY 29, 2017
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. The authorities announced that they are opening criminal charges against the Witnesses for allegedly continuing the activity of an extremist organization. The government liquidated the Oryol Local Religious Organization (LRO) on extremism charges on June 14, 2016. Additionally, the authorities made a record of the personal information of all who attended the religious services, seized their personal electronic devices, and later searched the homes of the Witnesses in Oryol.
The authorities took the men of the Oryol congregation to the FSB offices and are holding in custody a Danish citizen, Dennis Christensen, who is a congregation elder. The prosecutor made an urgent application to the Sovietskiy District Court requesting that Mr. Christensen be kept in pretrial detention in order to give the FSB time to gather evidence and find witnesses to establish their case. Judge Svetlana Naumova granted the application, ordering that Mr. Christensen be held in pretrial detention for two months. A complaint against the order will be filed today. If convicted, he could face a six to ten year prison term under Article 282.2, part 1, of the Criminal Code.
The congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol was holding a religious service as a group of worshippers—it is not a legal entity. This action by Russian authorities shows that they are interested in targeting the worship of the Witnesses and not merely their legal structures (LROs). This is similar to the experience of Witnesses in the city of Taganrog, where authorities first liquidated the LRO and later brought criminal charges of extremism against 16 Witnesses because they continued to meet for peaceful worship. In November 2015, all 16 were convicted but their sentences and fines were suspended. Their case is currently being reviewed by the European Court of Human Rights.