Danish Jehovah's Witness Found Guilty Of Extremism In Russian Court, Given Six Years

A Russian court has found Dennis Christensen, a Danish adherent of the Jehovah's Witnesses religion, guilty of "organizing the activity of an extremist organization."

The Zheleznodorozhny district court in Russia's western city of Oryol on February 6 also sentenced Christensen to six years in prison -- a ruling that was met with consternation by international human rights groups and the West.

"I do not agree with this judgment, it's a big mistake," Christensen, who has already been held for 622 days, told reporters after the ruling.

His lawyer Anton Bogdanov said that he will likely file an appeal within 10 days after discussing the matter with his client.

"The man was sentenced to six years behind bars, because he, along with others of the same religious beliefs, read the Bible and spread their religious views," he said.

"It is sad that reading the Bible, preaching, and living a moral way of life is again a criminal offense in Russia," Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses, said in a statement.

Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the verdict a "disgrace" and a "blatant violation" of the rights to religious freedom and expression.

"It's shocking that in post-Soviet Russia authorities are putting people through the ordeal of a criminal investigation and prison for nothing more than peacefully practicing their faith," she added.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Andrea Kalan, both expressed serious concern about the sentencing and called on Russia to "respect freedom of religion."

Denmark stood ready to help with Christensen's appeal, Samuelsen added.

In a statement, Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, called on Russia to release Christensen "immediately and unconditionally," saying that "no one should be imprisoned for peaceful acts of worship in the expression of their religious beliefs."

Christensen was arrested in Oryol in May 2017, a month after Russia's Supreme Court ruled that the religious group should be closed down and no longer allowed to operate in the country.

He was the first Jehovah's Witness to be detained in Russia following the ban. Since then, dozens of other members of the group have been detained and face similar charges of extremism.

Prosecutors had asked the court to sentence Christensen to 6 1/2 years in prison. The maximum sentence was 10 years.

Russian investigators told the court that Christensen maintained the group's property in Oryol, organized fund-raisers, and distributed religious literature aimed at attracting more followers to the group's teachings.

Christensen told the court that officers of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) tried to persuade him to plead guilty to the charges by promising him a milder sentence.

He testified that when he refused to plead guilty, one FSB officer threatened that he would face the maximum 10-year prison sentence.

Headquartered in the U.S. state of New York, the Jehovah's Witnesses organization has long been viewed with suspicion by some governments for its members' positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general.

The group says it has around 170,000 adherents in Russia.

In its 2017 ruling, the Supreme Court ordered the seizure of the group's property and effectively banned worshipers from the country.

Ahead of the ruling, Amnesty International said on February 5 that Christensen's case was "emblematic of the grave human rights violations including the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and religion in the country."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, Reuters, AP, and BBC