On Wednesday, a Russian court passed a sentence of six years in prison on a Jehovah’s Witness for “extremism”. This conviction is the first conviction of its kind since a 2017 law which outlawed the religious group in the country.
Danish citizen Dennis Christensen was in court in the southern Russian city of Oryol for the sentencing, spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia Yaroslav Sivulskiy told AFP.
“We deeply regret the conviction of Dennis Christensen — an innocent man who did not commit any real crime,” Sivulskiy said in a statement.
“It is sad that reading the Bible, preaching, and living a moral way of life is again a criminal offence in Russia.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, a US-based Christian evangelical movement, will appeal the verdict within 10 days, according to a statement from the organisation’s head office.
An AFP photographer outside the courtroom saw Christensen, 46, being led past a mass of supporters by police officers following the verdict.
Rights groups have condemned the trial, with Amnesty International saying it was “emblematic of the grave human rights violations” taking place in Russia.
Armed FSB officers detained Christensen in Oryol in May 2017, shortly after Moscow banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organisation.
Arkadya Akopyan, a 70-year-old retired tailor and one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, has been on trial for a year on charges of extremist activity. If convicted, he faces a heavy fine or a prison sentence of up to four years.
The prosecution alleges that Mr. Akopyan is guilty of “inciting religious hatred” based on a religious sermon he gave at a local Kingdom Hall where he has regularly attended for many years. In court, the prosecutor relied heavily on the false testimony of six individuals who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses. They claim that Mr. Akopyan made defamatory statements during his sermon and that he gave them “extremist” literature to distribute to others.
Mr. Akopyan and others who know him deny both claims. His lawyer presented evidence in court that the six individuals who made the allegations were nowhere near the building in which they claim Mr. Akopyan made his statements. Further, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not indiscriminately give religious literature to non-Witnesses for them to distribute. Mr. Akopyan’s wife, Sonya, who is not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, informed the court during her cross-examination that she has been happily married for 40 years and that her husband has never forced any of their relatives to become Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Judge Oleg Golovashko ordered an expert study to examine the statements made by Mr. Akopyan during his sermon in order to determine whether he had ‘incited religious hatred.’ At Mr. Akopyan’s most recent hearing, on May 15, 2018, the judge indicated that the expert study should be completed during the month of September 2018 but that he would continue the trial in the meantime. The next hearing is scheduled for June 5, when Mr. Akopyan will be cross-examined. Although he is not in pretrial detention, Mr. Akopyan has been restricted from traveling since his trial began in May 2017 in the Prokhladny District Court.
Gregory Allen, Associate General Counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated: “Mr. Akopyan is just one more victim of Russia’s gross misapplication of its extremism legislation against Jehovah’s Witnesses. He is an innocent, law-abiding citizen who merely wants to worship God in peace. The government’s misguided targeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses puts every Witness under duress and erodes the diverse social fabric of the country.”
Mr. Akopyan is the second Witness in Russia who is being unjustly prosecuted for “extremist activity.” The criminal trial of Dennis Christensen, a Witness in Oryol, began in February 2018. He has been in pretrial detention for a year and could face up to ten years in prison if convicted. * Another seven Witnesses are in pretrial detention in various regions of Russia but have not been formally indicted.
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