On May 30, the trial of Danish citizen, Jehovah's Witness Dennis Christensen, continued in Orel. The court planned to interrogate a secret FSB officer Yermolov, but it turned out to be technically impossible. Christensen was sent back to the detention center. He has been detained for more than a year on charges of participating in the activities of the religious organization Jehovah's Witnesses, which is recognized as extremist and banned in Russia. Report from the courtroom and details of this case — in the material of «7x7».
"Exclude public dissemination of information"
Before interrogating Yermolov, representative of the state prosecution asked the court "to orient the representatives of the mass media present in the trial, to exclude the public dissemination of information and its publication, detailing the progress of the trial, assessments, evidence, judgments", because it allegedly "blantly violated the principle of the adversarial nature of the parties, did not allow prosecution ensuring the submission of evidence, observance of procedures for the objective examination of witnesses."
Christensen and his defense opposed the accepting of this petition, perceiving it as a request for violation of the law on the media and the position of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The judge agreed with the defense and the defendant's opinion and refused to accept the petition, as the state prosecution did not submit facts of abuse of freedom of speech by representatives of the media.
Dennis Christensen has been living in Orel for more than ten years. He was detained on May 25, 2017 and was accused of continuing the activities of the recognized extremist local organization Jehovah's Witnesses — Orel. According to the investigation, Dennis Christensen conducted services, collected donations and transferred money to the account of the head office of the Jehovah's Witnesses, distributed religious literature and worked on the development of the banned organization. In July 2017, the human rights organization Memorial recognized Christensen as a political prisoner. Human rights activists believe that charges against him are brought "only because he is a believing Jehovah's Witness", and therefore these charges "are discriminatory and violate international legal acts, in particular, the right to freedom of religion." "Memorial" demanded "to immediately stop the persecution of Dennis Christensen and other Jehovah's Witnesses who are being persecuted for their religious affiliation."
Despite the protests of human rights defenders, Christensen has been detained for a year. He himself considers this unreasonable and illegal. In June 2017, he filed a complaint to the ECHR and asked that the case be examined as a matter of urgency. On 4 September 2017, the ECHR found the application admissible and sent questions to the Government of Russia regarding the circumstances of the case.
"It can hardly be called legal"
Interests of Christensen are represented by three lawyers — from St. Petersburg, Krasnodar and Kursk. Prior to the trial, the correspondent of «7x7» met with the lawyer of the St. Petersburg chamber of attorneys Victor Zhenkov and asked him several questions.
— What was your client accused of?
— In fact, the accusation is not clear to anyone. In 2016, the Orel regional court liquidated a legal entity — the local organization "Jehovah's Witnesses" in the city of Orel. However, it did not forbid the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses and did not restrict the right of citizens to profess their religion, share their convictions with other people. Nevertheless, in May 2017, Mr. Christensen was arrested only because he remained a Witness of Jehovah after the ban of a local religious organization. It means he did not abandon his beliefs, continued to profess his religion, just as probably thousands of Russian citizens. Since then, he has been in custody, awaiting a verdict for literally reading the Bible. This is the first case in modern Russia, when the believer was imprisoned for his faith.
— And what does the activity of the organization consist of? Is it defined by the charter? How does the prosecution interpret it?
— We examined the charter, and it says that foreign citizens do not have the right to be members of a local religious organization.
— So, Christensen was not even a member of the local organization?
— He was not. He's just a believer. And the witnesses who are interrogated in the court session say only that they saw Christensen at the service, they saw how he cleaned the snow on the street before the service, how greeted other people — that’s all.
— Did he conduct services?
— We still examine this evidence. But I want to say that when the Russian Supreme considered the complaint of a local religious organization on the decision of the Orel district court, it issued an appellate ruling, and the district court decision was upheld, but pointed out that this decision in no way influenced believers and members of this organization. It clearly states that these citizens have the right to continue to practice religious rituals. So, even if a person performed religious rituals, this is not a violation of the law, since no one abolished Article 28 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which reads: "Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion, including the right to profess individually or together with other any religion or to profess no religion at all, to freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views and act according to them." Therefore, what is happening today in Orel in the court of the Zheleznodorozhny district is nonsense, this is illegal, and we hope that the court will hear us and pass an acquittal.
— If the court does not pass an acquittal, what punishment should be expected?
— He faces up to 10 years of prison. Just because the person was reading the Bible. It can hardly be called legal.
— Do you and the prosecution interpret the law differently? Or is there simply a political component in this case?
— In court I stated explicitly that it was genocide. In the Russian Federation there is a campaign to prosecute Jehovah's Witnesses, and its purpose is very simple: people either refuse to be Jehovah's Witnesses, or leave the country, which, unfortunately, is happening now. And since Jehovah's Witnesses have acted officially since the 1990s, they had registration, their doctrine was studied before registering, the state agreed that the doctrine was not dangerous.
"He does not understand why he is there"
The process aroused interest among many followers of Jehovah's Witnesses: on May 30, believers from Belorussia and St. Petersburg came to support Dennis Christensen. The hall was full, and, as the attendants explained, there would have been even more people if the room was more spacious.
"This is very important for us," the wife of the defendant Irina Christensen told "7x7". "It's very difficult without support. Both for me and for him. Two dates a month is nothing. We sit about two meters apart, not being able even to touch each other, and talk on the phone. Two glasses, a bar and a passage between us. We are even closer to each other during the court session. But the most difficult thing in being detained is to realize that it is unfair. You have not committed anything reprehensible, but should stay among criminals. It is very difficult. He does not understand why he is there. Initially, he even asked the judge: explain to me why I am here. I do not understand what my extremism consists of and what I am accused of."
Irina Christensen does not know how the process will end: "Lawyers work, but the judge decides." At the same time, she said that a difficult situation had united Jehovah's Witnesses, no one had abandoned faith. As for Dennis Christensen, in court he was calm and smiling. During breaks he told me that he received a lot of letters —about a hundred in May. From adults and children. He puts letters and pictures into files and decorates his ward. So, in the SIZO he is literally surrounded by people who support him.
In Russia, there are 175,000 active Jehovah's Witnesses. In 2017, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation recognized the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia and all of its 395 local organizations as extremist and banned their activities on the territory of Russia.
In the Russian Empire, the religious organization "Jehovah's Witnesses"* was officially registered on September 24, 1913. During the Soviet times, Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted. In 1949 and 1951, they were sent to Siberia, Kazakhstan and the Far East along with their families. The largest deportation of Jehovah's Witnesses to Siberia was during operation "North", when for two days (April 1 and 2, 1951) thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses and their families were taken to Siberia. Subsequently, they were fully rehabilitated and recognized as victims of political repression.
*Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia (Jehovah's Witnesses) — organization prohibited on the territory of the Russian Federation.
Alyona Posadskaya, photo of the author, «7x7»