A Jehovah’s Witness is given Russia’s first prison sentence under extremism law

Jehovah's Witness Russia Dennis Christensen

While it is a far cry from the mass deportation of Jehovah's Witnesses to Siberia in Soviet times, the growing number of believers here have faced raids, arrests and bans by local courts in the past decade.

The Danish foreign minister, Anders Samuelsen, called on Moscow to respect religious freedom and criticised it for classifying Jehovah's Witnesses as a terrorist group.

The almost 622 days Mr Christensen has already spent in confinement will reportedly count for about half of the six-year sentence. He had unlocked the entrance to the building and delivered a sermon that day but he was not a staff member of the organization, according Human Rights Watch.

In 2017, Russian Federation declared the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organisation.

Reuters interviewed Christensen in his jail cell during breaks in the trial.

Amnesty International says that since Christensen's arrest more than 50 other Jehovah's Witnesses have been charged by the Russian state with violating anti-extremism legislation, with dozens in detention or under house arrest.

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Under a gospel of "traditional values", Russian President Vladimir Putin has forged close relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which sees Jehovah's Witnesses as a heretical sect. "We agree with President Putin that persecuting peaceful believers is utter nonsense, and call on Russian Federation to respect freedom of religion". Anton Bogdanov, his lawyer, said they plan to appeal the verdict 10 days from Wednesday.

Responding to Christensen's case, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was clearly reason for his arrest but he was unaware specifics, according to Reuters.

As a member of the Council of Europe and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia is obligated to protect the rights to freedom of religion and association.

Christensen has pleaded innocent claiming he was only exercising his freedom of religion which is enshrined in the country's constitution.

Paul Gillies, spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses, said in an emailed statement that Christensen did not commit any crime and that he was convicted "merely for practicing his Christian faith". "It is sad that reading the bible, preaching, and living a moral way of life is again a criminal offense in Russia", Sivulskiy said in a public statement on Wednesday.

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