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Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia: how Dennis Christensen became an Orel extremist

 

By Viktor Nekhezin

 

Russia Religion News (23.01.2019) – https://bit.ly/2FJzbgV – […] At seven o’clock in the evening of 25 May 2017, during a Saturday worship service at building 50 on Zheleznodorozhny St. in Orel, a squad of OMON troops led by agents of the F.S.B. burst into the Kingdom Hall (as Jehovah’s Witnesses call their houses of worship). A search was conducted in the building, which lasted until 5:00 in the morning of the next day.

 

Of 100 persons who were at the worship service, only Dennis Christensen was arrested. He was informed that a criminal case of extremism had been opened against him. Since that time, the Dane has been in pretrial detention.

 

He himself calls the accusation against him absurd. “To call me or other peaceful Jehovah’s Witnesses extremists is the greatest stupidity that I have ever heard!” the Dane says in amazement.

 

An “excerpt from the order regarding the defendant of 15 November 2017” says that “Christensen, Dennis Ole, committed an intentional crime against the foundation of the constitutional structure and the security of the state.” In the opinion of the investigator, Christensen, while being “the effective leader of the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Orel, undertook aggressive actions of an organizational nature directed to the continuation of the illegal activity of the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Orel.”

 

The list of charges against Dennis Ole Christensen includes:

 

  • he agreed and coordinated his actions as leader of the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Orel with the forbidden “Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia;”
  • he received from the “Administrative Center” religious literature with extremist contents and also forms for registering refusal of medical intervention (blood transfusion);
  • he engaged three Russian citizens in the administration of the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Orel (a criminal case against them was made into a separate trial and all three left Russia, along with their families, in 2017);
  • he disposed of property of the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Orel, by controlling the receipt and disbursement of funds;
  • he organized the collection of funds from members of the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Orel and directed their transfer to the account of the forbidden “Administrative Center;”
  • “he continued the use of the building at the address of 50 Zheleznodorozhny St., Orel” as the premises for worship services and directed the payment of utilities for this building;
  • “he adopted measures of conspiracy for hiding the activity of the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Orel;
  • he organized the storage of financial documents and religious literature “in electronic form and remote access;”
  • “using his authority as a spiritual leader,” he independently made decisions about receiving new members into the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Orel;
  • “he was the initiator and he exercised primacy in determining the course of worship services,” in which persons who are not adherents of the religious teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses and also state agencies and bodies of local administration are evaluated negatively.

 

At the same time, Dennis Christensen was not even an official member of the Orel local religious organization. “He was never in this local religious organization at all and he could not be by law. Can you imagine? Because he is a foreigner. And the charter of the local religious organization stipulates that only citizens of Russia may be members of the local religious organization. Of course, this is nonsense, but what is to be done,” explains Irina [Christensen’s wife].

 

Her words are confirmed by Christensen’s lawyer, Anton Bogdanov: the defense examined the documents of the local religious organization and did not find a single mention of Dennis Christensen. “Even the prosecution does not challenge this,” Bogdanov emphasizes. “They say that he was the ‘effective director.’ Although the facts say otherwise.”

 

According to the logic of the prosecution, the attorney says, it turns out that after the liquidation by the court of the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Orel, the adherents of this religion in principle did not have the right to conduct worship services: “Their position comes down to this, that once the court liquidated the legal entity, then people cannot assemble together, read the Bible, pray, or sing religious songs.”

 

But this contradicts the decision of the Supreme Court, the attorney avers. “There is the appellate determination of the Russian Supreme Court on this case regarding the liquidation of the local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Orel—that after this liquidation, people professing the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses have the right to profess their religion afterward and to conduct their rituals,” Anton Bogdanov recalls.

 

Complete Surprise

 

The local religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Orel was liquidated in July 2016; in October of the same year this court decision took legal effect, but both before and after this the Orel Jehovists continued to gather twice a week in their Kingdom Hall on Zheleznodorozhny. Irina Christensen said that she and her husband did not have any premonitions or fears. Dennis’ arrest at the end of May 2017 was a complete surprise for them.

 

The prosecutors presented their evidence in court for almost six months, but, as Anton Bogdanov notes, the foundation of the accusation was audio and video recordings made with the help of a hidden camera of two services in February 2017. The recordings were made by an agent who was inserted into the congregation, who spoke in court as a secret witness under the pseudonym “Aleksei Ermolov.”

 

“This is a person we know. He is a teacher of the Orel State University, and he filmed everything that was happening,” the attorney explains. The identity of the secret witness became known to participants in the trial and journalists, but he himself refused to talk with the press.

 

Attorney Bogdanov doubts that it is possible to find any signs of extremism in the recordings made by “Aleksei Ermolov”

 

“These are ordinary conversations about religion. That God will destroy dishonest people—this is a quotation from the Bible. That people who will be righteous will live forever. Not Jehovah’s Witnesses, but people who will be righteous, they will live forever. That it is necessary to develop in one’s self meekness, self-control, patience, and love, and to relate to people peacefully no matter how they treat us. These are quotations of phrases that were spoken in the service,” Bogdanov cites examples.

 

The attorney insists that in the case there is no criminal event.

 

In court the secret witness repeated two of the most common accusations against Jehovah’s Witnesses: that they break up families and pose a threat to their own life by refusing blood transfusion. But the witness replied to clarifying question of the defense that he knew about this “from the internet.”

 

“Cite facts: whose family was broken up, who died without blood, what else? I know of no incidents in Orel. It is very superficial. A lot of dirt, few facts. More subjective evaluation,” Bogdanov summed up the statements of the secret witness.

 

Several court sessions were devoted to wiretaps of Christensen’s telephone conversations with his fellow believers. Attorney Bogdanov thinks that the court did not hear anything that incriminates his client. Even the opposite: without knowing about the wiretap, in one of the conversations Christensen himself says to his interlocutor: “We are not a local religious organization; we are simply a religious group, ordinary believing people.” In the opinion of Anton Bogdanov, this proves the absence of any connections of Christensen with the forbidden organization.

 

During searches in the house of worship and in the apartment, a lot of religious literature was seized from Christensen, but the investigators did not manage to find there anything that is extremist. “There is not anything here,” Bogdanov summarizes the evidence of the prosecution.

 

General flow

 

Dennis Christensen admits that he was an elder, one of several in their congregation (usually in each congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses there are five or six elders). “But this does not make me the leader of the congregation,” he insists. “Jesus said in Matthew 23.8, ‘You all are brothers.’ I am a Christian brother, the same as all the rest, and we are equal before God.”

 

Attorney Anton Bogdanov thinks that the prosecution does not have weighty evidence that it was Dennis Christensen who was the organizer of the worship services and generally the head of the Orel congregation. In the video recordings of meetings it is evident that the leader of the meetings was another person, and Christensen was only one of the speakers.

 

Bogdanov says that there was no need to organize anything: in a brochure published centrally for Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the world and not banned in Russia there is a schedule with clear instructions when to read which excerpts from the Bible, what questions to discuss, and what songs to sing. “This is the general flow of the world religious confession of Jehovah’s Witnesses. And the witnesses who were questioned said: we do not need for anyone to come and say: ‘So, I am your organizer; today we are reading this, and tomorrow that,’ everything is clear here.”

 

On a cost-free basis

 

In the attorney’s opinion, the other points of the indictment are also similarly insubstantial. For example, that it was Christensen who was responsible for the use of the premises where the worship services were held. The building at 50 Zheleznodorozhny, where the Orel Jehovah’s Witnesses made their Kingdom Hall, is owned by a private individual who resides in Moscow and provides the building for use by the Jehovah’s Witnesses at no cost. Anton Bogdanov supposes that the owner is a Jehovah’s Witness himself and his testimony is in the materials of the case. There was no rental agreement.

 

And Bogdanov emphasizes, there were three congregations of Jehovists in all in Orel. “Consequently, this building was attended not only by the group Christensen was in but also was used by other people,” the attorney points out.

 

After Christensen’s arrest, his fellow believers ceased using the building at 50 Zheleznodorozhny and now their meetings are conducted in apartments in various districts of Orel.

 

Second round of repressions

 

Despite nearly a year and a half spent in prison, Dennis Christensen, as previously, does not regret that he moved to live in Russia. “It is one of the best decisions that I have made in my life, and it brought me much happiness,” he thinks.

 

His wife says that they feel the support and aid not only from fellow believers and relatives. Many rights advocacy organizations recognize Dennis Christensen as a political prisoner.

 

“In principle, in Russia this was everything that was in the Soviet Union. Jehovah’s Witnesses were under a ban for decades, they met secretly, they read the Bible surreptitiously. This all was already, it is history. This has not stopped people,” she recalls. Irina says that now a second round of repressions against Jehovah’s Witnesses is going on and they are ready for it.

 

“The prison terms are the very same; at that time they gave ten years, and now it is ten years. One for one. The article simply is different. There you were considered an enemy of the people, and here, an extremist,” Irina says.

 

She is not making plans and she is not contemplating alternatives in the event of Dennis’ deportation from Russia. Irina maintains that she and her husband have never thought about leaving the country and they do not want to even now.

 

There are already dozens of cases of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses in the European Court of Human Rights, including an appeal by Dennis Christensen against his detention and by Irina Christensen for deprivation of her right to meet with her husband during the investigation. Irina does not doubt that they will win these cases, since the E.C.H.R. has already made decisions in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in similar instances. In the event of an unfavorable outcome of the trial in Orel, they will of course also appeal it to the E.C.H.R.

 

It seems that Dennis Christensen has already lost faith in Russian justice. “To be honest, I always had the feeling—both during the investigation and during the trial—that everything had already been decided long, long ago, and I am already convicted,” Christensen acknowledges.

 

And he adds: “We will see whether I am right.” (tr. by PDS, posted 23 January 2019)

 

[Translator’s note: this is a translation of the second half of the original BBC article.]

 

 

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