A Russian prosecutor has asked a court to sentence a Danish man to 6 1/2 years in prison for his affiliation with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the U.S.-based denomination deemed by Russia to be extremist.
Russian news reports said the prosecutor in the southern city of Oryol made the demand during a court hearing on January 23 in the case against Dennis Christensen.
The 46-year-old Christensen, who was detained in May 2017, is believed to be the first person to go on trial in Russia for his affiliation with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Headquartered in New York state, the Jehovah's Witnesses organization has long been viewed with suspicion for its positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general. The group says it has around 170,000 adherents in Russia.
In 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled in favor of prosecutors who argued that the group’s teachings qualified as extremist, ordering the seizure of its property and effectively banning worshippers from the country.
More than 100 criminal cases have been opened against followers in Russia and some of their 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 frequently face discrimination.
In an interview with Reuters, conducted from the glass cage where he watched the proceedings in the Oryol court, Christiansen denied the charges and said the case against him had echoes of the Stalin-era
"I'm afraid that history is now repeating itself," Christiansen said. "I'm afraid that it's actually like Stalin has come back."