MOSCOW (AP) — A regional court in western Russia on Wednesday sentenced a Danish Jehovah's Witness to six years in prison, in arguably the most severe crackdown on religious freedom in Russia in recent years.
The court in Oryol found Dennis Christensen, who was leading the local Bible reading, guilty of extremism, making him the first Jehovah's Witness in Russia to have been sent to prison.
Russia in recent years has used its vaguely worded extremism laws to go after dissenters, opposition activists and most recently religious minorities. Russia officially banned the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2017 and declared the religious group an extremist organization.
Nearly 100 members of the group face charges in Russia, and more than 20 of them are in jail awaiting trial. Before the ban, the world headquarters of the Jehovah's Witnesses claimed about 170,000 adherents in Russia.
Paul Gillies, spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses, said in an emailed statement that Christensen did not commit any crime and that he was convicted "merely for practicing his Christian faith."
"This verdict reveals just how fragile religious freedom has become in Russia," Gillies said.
The religious group got a glimmer of hope in December when President Vladimir Putin publicly pledged to look into the reported persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, calling extremism charges against the religion's adherents "nonsense."
But Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, when asked about the case after the verdict, was unable to say if Putin had looked into the matter and had no comment on the ruling Wednesday.
Amnesty International has said that it considers Christensen and other Jehovah's Witnesses on trial as prisoners of conscience.