Staunton, July 22 – The number of political prisoners in Russia has risen dramatically over the period of Vladimir Putin’s rule, but now there has been an especially disturbing development within that trend: the appearance in that country of the first political prisoner for exclusively religious reasons since the end of Soviet times.
He is Dennis Christensen, a Danish Jehovah’s Witness who has been living in Russia for some time and has now had his detention extended for another four months, who has thus become in the words of Anton Chivchalov, “the first political prisoner on purely religious grounds in Russia since the 1980s” (portal-credo.ru/site/?act=comment&id=2191).
In a new commentary on the Portal-Credo website, the Minsk-based specialist on religious life in the post-Soviet states says that as a result of the decision of the Soviet district court in Oryol, Christensen has had his time in an isolator “in the framework of a shameful and fabricated religious case” extended for another four months, to November 23.
The Memorial human rights group had already recognized Christensen as a political prisoner (memohrc.org/news/memorial-priznal-politzaklyuchennym-veruyushchego-svidetelya-iegovy-iz-danii-dennisa), but Chivchalov underscores the distinctively religious nature of this status and notes that it “opens a new page in the history of repression on the post-Soviet space.”
Christensen’s travails began on May 26 when the FSB broke into a peaceful religious meeting and arrested a group of unarmed believers. “His case was completely fabricated from A to Z,” the religious affairs expert says, making it even more Orwellian than many of the political processes in Russia in recent years.
The Jehovah’s Witness “did not do anything that could even be discussed. When the FSB broke into the building, he was simply sitting on a chair. He had not guns, drugs, or prohibited literature. He hadn’t stolen or killed anyone or distributed prohibited literature, and he wasn’t involved in ‘extremist’ or ‘missionary’ activity,” Chivchalov says.
Christensen “was not a member of any banned organization. He didn’t take an apartment away from someone, he didn’t destroy a family, he didn’t ban blood transfusions or refuse to serve in the army – in sum, he didn’t do any of the horrific things” that the Russian media regularly claims that Jehovah’s Witnesses do.
Apparently, the expert says, “the FSB was interested in the Dane only because he is a foreigner,” but instead of expelling him from Russia, the authorities wanted to use his case to “frighten believers and put moral and psychological pressure on them.” The message is clear: what happened with Christensen in Oryol today can happen to them tomorrow.
Russian investigators continue to lie and claim that Christensen is the leader of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oryol. In fact, he is not even a member of that group, let alone its leader. But that alone doesn’t end the horrific strangeness of this case: in June, Rossiiskaya gazeta reported on Oryol court hearing about him that had not in fact taken place (rg.ru/2017/06/10/reg-cfo/arest-svidetel.html).
“One can like or dislike various religions,” Chivchalov says. “one can agree or disagree with them. This is normal in civil society. But in any situation, one must act according to the law.” What has happened in Oryol is a complete flouting of the legal system, just like the kind of thing that often happened in Soviet times.
And this is happening not just with Christensen and not just in Oryol. A Jehovah’s Witness died of a heart attack after questioning in Russian-occupied Crimea and another elderly follower of that denomination is currently languishing in detention in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.
Worse may be ahead, Chivchalov says. A few days ago, the Russian Orthodox Church’s television channel Tsargrad spoke about “’the end of Yeltsin ecumenism’” as reflected in moves against the Witnesses and other sectarians, a virtual call for Russians to attack such people and do so without regard to Russian law.
“But if the system of law collapses, everyone will suffer from this, including those who today who want to march with torches,” the religious affairs specialist says.
There is a more immediate worry: Christensen is in weak health and cannot get treatment in the place where he has been jailed. “What will happen if he dies in jail, repeating the fate of Otto Wormbir in North Korea … another hapless foreigner who travelled from a contemporary country into a medieval one and turned out to be the accidental victim of a cannibalistic ideology.”
That is no stretch, Chivchalov says. After all, the Russian media today regularly stresses that countries like North Korea are “new models for emulation, new progressive eastern partners” in dealing with “spiritual” challenges and maintaining “spiritual bindings” on Russian society.