Russia releases Jehovah's Witness follower from prison

Dennis Christensen leaves after a court session in Oryol
Dennis Christensen, a Jehovah's Witness accused of extremism, leaves after a court session in handcuffs in the town of Oryol, Russia January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Andrew Osborn

COPENHAGEN, May 24 (Reuters) - A Danish adherent of the Jehovah's Witnesses was released from a Russian prison on Tuesday after serving five years on extremism charges as part of Moscow's crackdown on the religious group, it said.

Dennis Christensen, a 49-year-old builder, was arrested at a prayer meeting in Oryol, 200 miles (320 km) south of Moscow, in 2017. It was the first of dozens of arrests of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.

He was released on Tuesday from prison in the town of Lgov in Russia's Kursk region, about 50 miles from the Ukrainian border.

Russia's supreme court banned the Jehovah's Witnesses as an extremist organisation in April 2017 and ordered it to disband nationwide.

"Christensen's detention was the start of an aggressive campaign of arresting and imprisoning Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia," the group said in a statement, adding that Christensen intended to return to Denmark.

The group has around 140,000 adherents in Russia, where as of May 1 authorities had raided 1,755 homes of Jehovah's Witnesses and pressed criminal charges against 622. Ninety members remained in jail, the group said.

It said it was "deeply disturbed at the escalating persecution of their fellow worshippers in Russia and Crimea".

In its original ruling, the supreme court cited what it called the Jehovah's Witnesses' "propaganda of exclusivity" in ruling to ban the group and dissolve its organisations.

Christensen was sentenced to six years in prison in 2019, with two years deducted for time spent in pretrial detention. He ultimately served five years of his sentence.

The Jehovah's Witnesses, based in the United States, have long come under suspicion in Russia, where the Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian Orthodox Church has depicted the Jehovah's Witnesses as a dangerous foreign sect, allegations the group denies.

Reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and Felix LIght; Editing by Catherine Evans and Nick Macfie

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.