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Verdict Due Next Week In Russian Trial Of Danish Jehovah's Witness

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Russian Trial Called 'A Litmus Test For Religious Freedom'
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WATCH: Russian Trial Called 'A Litmus Test For Religious Freedom'

A verdict is expected next week in the trial of a Danish member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, a U.S.-based religious denomination that Russia has branded extremist and outlawed.

Final arguments were completed on January 30 in the trial of Dennis Christensen in the western city of Oryol, where he has been jailed since shortly after his arrest in May 2017, Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia said in a brief statement on its website.

Judge Aleksei Rudnyev will pronounce the verdict on February 6, it said.

The defense argued for acquittal while prosecutors have asked the court to convict Christensen, 46, of organizing the activities of an extremist group and sentence him to 6 1/2 years in prison. The maximum sentence for that crime is 10 years.

Christensen's Russian wife, Irina, told the media outside the court, "He wasn't doing anything illegal and of course he wasn't planning to."

Another supporter outside the court described Christensen as a "good person" who would go out of his way to help his neighbors.

The verdict will reportedly be the first to be issued against a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses since Russia's Supreme Court designated the group as extremist two years ago -- a decision that has been criticized by the United States, the European Union, and human rights groups.

Human Rights Watch has said that Christensen, who denies the charge, did nothing wrong and should be released. In a report last year, the watchdog accused the Russian authorities of a "sweeping campaign" of harassment and persecution against the movement.

Russian activists and Christensen, who has lived in Oryol for more than a decade, say the case against him has echoes of the era of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

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 its property and effectively banned worshipers from the country.

More than 100 criminal cases have been opened against followers in Russia and some of its publications have been listed as banned extremist literature.

Some of the criminal case brought before the Supreme Court by prosecutors hinged on Russian-language Bible translations by the organization.

Freedom of religion is formally guaranteed in Russia but legislation sets out Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country's four traditional religions, and smaller denominations such as Baptists, Pentecostalists, Mormons, and others frequently face discrimination.

President Vladimir Putin seemed to suggest the Russian state might review the "extremist" designation when he discussed the issue at a meeting of his advisory human rights council in December.

Putin said that "Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians, too," and that it is "complete nonsense" in some cases to "label representatives of religious communities as members of destructive, even terrorist, organizations."

Putin's spokesman said at the time that the Kremlin would look into the matter, but no further announcements have been made.

Earlier in the trial, Christensen, who denied the charges, said the case evoked the Stalin era.

"I'm afraid that history is now repeating itself," Christiansen told Reuters. "I'm afraid that it's actually like Stalin has come back."

Christiansen's trial has gotten very little coverage in the Russian national media, unlike many high-profile cases involving foreigners.

With reporting by AFP
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