On Friday, a Russian court found a Danish Jehovah's Witness guilty of organizing a forbidden extremist group and sentenced him to six years in prison, reported Russian state media. The case has been condemned by rights groups as part of a broader disintegration of the religious group.
Russia's Supreme Court banned Jehovah's Witnesses as an extremist organization in April 2017. About a month later, police detained Dennis Christensen, a Danish member of the Christian Church during a prayer service in the southwestern city of Oryol.
Mr. Christensen, who has lived in Russia since 1
Paul Gillies, a spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses, said in an e-mail statement that Christensen had been convicted "just to exercise his Christian faith."
"This verdict just reveals how fragile religious freedom has become in Russia," he said, adding that the group would "continue to appeal to justice."
"An innocent man who did not commit any genuine crime was convicted, "said Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses, in a statement. "Reading the Bible is boring, preaching and living a moral lifestyle is again an offense in Russia."
Denmark's Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen wrote on on Twitter on Wednesday that he was "deeply concerned" by the verdict and urged Russia to respect religious freedom. He said the Foreign Ministry would help Mr Christensen "should he decide to appeal".
Russia's push to ban Jehovah's Witnesses was the culmination of many years of lobbying of hard-hitting members of the Russian Orthodox Church, with whom President Vladimir V. Putin has developed close ties and a growing suspicion of foreign-led groups. The Kremlin has introduced a number of stringent measures against such groups over the past many years and targeted nonprofits and US-backed broadcasters.
Founded in the United States, Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted by Soviet security agencies for decades – a study renewed under a 2002 law of extremism, whose definition of "extremism" later expanded. Since then, the group has been at the center of a campaign to limit religious groups competing with the Russian Orthodox Church, and the authorities focused on their opposition to violence.
Over the past two years, the Russian police have arrested many Jehovah's Witnesses and raided prayers around the country, including the group's offices near St. Petersburg. Petersburg. Hundreds of followers have fled to Finland to avoid arrest.
Human rights groups have cast the case against Christensen as an example of Russia's systematic persecution of the country's 170,000 Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses on extremism charges is a serious violation of human rights," said Rachel Denber, Vice-Europe and Central Asia's Human Rights Watch Director, in a statement. The group said that 22 Jehovah's Witnesses are in custody in Russia and 25 are under house arrest.
He may have had reason to hope, in line with statements by Mr Putin in December. At that time, he expressed concern about the prosecution of Jehovah's Witnesses. He said that Russia "should treat the representatives of every religion equally", although the authorities still had to consider "the country and the world where we live."
But on Wednesday, Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for Mr Putin, told reporters that although he did not know the details of the case, the authorities "could not have done it simply to practice religion", according to RIA & # 39 ; s news agency.
"In all respects, there were certain grounds for prosecution," he said. "But since I don't know them, I can't tell you anything."