Yuriy Temirbulatov / Courtesy of Jehovah's Witnesses on AP
A Russian court has sentenced a Jehovah's Witness to six years in prison for promoting extremism.
"I hope today is the day Russia defends religious freedom," Dennis Christensen, who pleaded not guilty in the process, said when he went down the hall of the courthouse before the verdict was read.
As a Danish citizen with a Russian residence permit, Christensen was arrested in May 2017 at a service by an armed police force in the western town of Orel. He had unlocked the entrance to the building and delivered a sermon that day, but according to Human Rights Watch, he was not a member of the organization.
A local court had banned its chapter on the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses last year. One month before his arrest, the Supreme Court banned the Christian community as an extremist group and ruled it as the Islamic state. This verdict struck nearly 400 chapters of Jehovah's Witnesses across the country.
Christensen spent 20 months in pre-trial detention. In court, a "secret witness" accused him of being a leader of the city's chapter of Jehovah's Witnesses. The prosecutors submitted transcriptions of intercepted telephone conversations with other believers, including talks about snow shoveling at their place of worship. Christensen claimed that he practiced his religion, which was protected by the Russian constitution.
In his last words before After the counseling began, he thanked his wife and friends for their support. Then he told the prosecutors, "I disagree with you on this matter, neither in your allegations nor in your unfounded conclusions." He called it "absolutely stupid and insane".
His wife Irina Christensen told reporters, "The same thing can happen to each one of us."
Russian authorities have charged more than 100 Jehovah's Witnesses with extremism since the Supreme Court's ban – hundreds of raids, interrogations and harassment have been carried out, according to Human Rights Watch. There are 22 Jehovah's Witnesses awaiting trial for extremism and another 25 are being placed under house arrest, the organization says.
The religion was founded in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. An estimated 175,000 followers live in Russia, and they claim to participate in political activities, pay taxes, and obey the law.
Under the gospel of "traditional values," Russian President Vladimir Putin has forged close ties with Russian Orthodoxy Church, which considers Jehovah's Witnesses a heretic sect.
In December, Putin promised to investigate the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, saying that labeling religious communities as terrorist organizations was "utter nonsense."
Response to Christensen's case Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that there was clearly a reason for his arrest, but according to Reuters, he did not know the exact details.
Christensen plans to appeal against Wednesday's ruling.
His conviction led to a condemnation of the international community at a time when Russia was criticized for his actions against dissidents.
Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen said he was "deeply worried" about the outcome of the case. He urged Russia to respect religious freedom, and said the ministry would support Christensen if he decided to appeal.
Christensen has also filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights for unlawful interference with him right to religious freedom, according to Human Rights Watch.
"It is shocking that authorities in post-Soviet Russia are criminalizing people to carry out investigations and prisons for nothing other than peacefully practicing their beliefs," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Organization Europe and Central Asia.
"An innocent man who has not committed a crime has been convicted," said Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses. "It is sad that reading the Bible, preaching and living in a moral way of life in Russia again constitutes a crime."