Court refuses to grant habeas corpus to Danish Jehovah's Witness


The Dane is the first Jehovist who was placed behind bars after the organization's ban.
 Здание суда в г. Орел
Photos: Court building in Orel
The Orel provincial court on 21 June rejected the appeal against his detention from Danish citizen Dennis Christensen, who is charged with arranging the activity of an extremist organization. Christensen is the first Jehovah's Witness imprisoned in Russia after the prohibition of the organization by the Supreme Court. During the session, the Dane's defense attorney insisted on the groundlessness of his retention in custody and the defendant himself complained about the harsh conditions of being in the SIZO and he asked the court to release him to his family. A correspondent of Otkrytaya Rossia [Open Russia] observed the session.

 The session in the Orel provincial court was scheduled for 2:00 p.m. In the half hour before the start, a long line formed in the courthouse. Several dozen adherents of the now banned Jehovah's Witnesses came to support the subject of the Danish kingdom and representatives of the Danish embassy in Russia also came. The courtroom could not accommodate everyone and bailiffs were able to find seats for only 30 persons.

Before presiding judge Igor Paukov entered the courtroom, the Dane's attorney, Anton Bogdanov, and a translator, Yulia Avakova, were permitted to speak with their client. The Dane was present in the court on the screen of a monitor of a conference call from the SIZO [pretrial detention cell].

"You will be able to see only the judge," the attorney immediately warned. "We requested that it would be possible to send an image of the whole courtroom, but they explained to us that the technical capacity did not permit doing this."

The attorney asked the Dane to speak more slowly during the debate so that it would be easier to translate. "He understands everything," the translator explained after hearing Christensen's response.

After a few minutes the judge appeared in the courtroom and the court proceeded to establish his identity and to announce the circumstances of the appeal.

Search and Arrest

The 45-year-old native of Copenhagen, Dennis Ole Christensen, was arrested in Orel on 26 May 2017 by F.S.B. personnel. A case was opened against him based on part 2 of article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the RF (arranging the activity of a religious organization that has been ruled extremist). In 2016, a court prohibited the activity of the organization "Orel Jehovah's Witnesses." However, even after the prohibition, the investigators posited, Christensen continued the activity of the sect in its base. The day before the arrest, the F.S.B. and police conducted searches in the building where meetings of the Jehovists were held. As the press service of the directorate reported at the time, the agents seized "more than 1500 copies of religious literature, including some of an extremist nature, audio and video materials of meetings, electronic media, computer equipment, accounting documents reflecting the scope of the financing of the structure and sources of finances, and signed forms with contact information of members of the congregation concerning refusal to perform civic duties." "There also were conducted interrogations of about 50 members of the local congregation of 'Orel Jehovah's Witnesses,'" the F.S.B. added, "during which testimonies regarding the figure of the criminal case and his participation in illegal activity were collected."

The Soviet district court of Orel imprisoned Christensen for a term of two months. His defense attorney did not agree with this and the decision was appealed.

"Your honor, I have several petitions," Attorney Bogdanov said when the judge granted him the floor. The attorney explained that he was asking to make a recording of the session using audio tape, and in addition he requested making a video tape and then attaching it to the materials of the case. However the judge immediately rejected this request. "We do not have such technical capacities," the presiding official immediately replied. Bogdanov also asked the judge to attach to the case several documents which, in his opinion, should prove that Dennis Christensen did not intend to flee from the investigation and the court, in the event of a change in his measure of prevention. These included bank statements showing that the Dane works and pays taxes in Russia and documents from Denmark that say that he has no source of income there and materials from Danish police that note that Christensen has never been convicted of a crime. The attorney also requested adding a certification for a two-room apartment in Orel, positive references from his place of residence, thanks from the administration of the Zavod district of Orel and a photograph in which Christensen is shown during one of the local work-days, and a video disk of the search activities in the office of the Jehovah's Witnesses. "They will prove that Mr. Christensen requested providing him a translator," the attorney explained. The judge attached almost all the documents to the case, except the video tape, since he did not see any basis for that.

Law-abiding Citizen

It took an hour and a half to resolve the petitions. This was because the translator had to translate each response and each petition document for the Dane. The court needed another half hour for a partial publication of the materials of the case, after which the debate of the parties was held. Christensen's attorney immediately said that he considers the decision of the court of the first instance to be illegal and without basis. In his opinion, it grossly violated criminal procedural legislation. Bogdanov emphasized that, in choosing the measure of prevention, the court considered without grounds that Christensen, in the event of his release, could exert influence upon witnesses, and also he may flee, since he is charged on a harsh article and is not a citizen of Russia.

Деннис Кристенсен во время уборки территории в Орле. Фото:

"It seems like in the event that any person is suspected of a serious crime, he automatically might flee and the same seems to be the case for a subject of another country. But this is not so. It is necessary to look at the nature of Mr. Christensen's stay in Russia," the lawyer urged. "If a person is on Russia territory illegally and he is suspected of a crime, then of course there are no questions. But my client is here legally, until 2022, and he has a residency permit. In addition, his passport has been confiscated. How would he be able to flee, if even I, in order to come to Orel from Moscow, cannot do this without a passport?" Bogdanov added that Christensen will not flee and that he is a Jehovah's Witness. "And everybody knows that they are peaceful citizens. Whom can he threaten?" the lawyer asked. He also complained that the court does not consider alternative means of prevention—house arrest or bail. "If house arrest needs some additional prohibitions, then impose them and they will be fulfilled. He is a law-abiding citizen," Bogdanov said. He called the charges themselves discriminatory and in violation of international legal acts. "It is not clear just what he is accused of. To imprison Mr. Christensen only on the basis that he is a Jehovah's Witness is a violation of his right to religious confession. Let's look at the references of my client: he regularly participates in the city clean-up of trash and he participates in building a children's playground. Neighbors and children await his return. People who might flee and intimidate someone do not clean up the city and build playgrounds," the attorney said.

Bogdanov concluded his speech with a reference to the "famous Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen." "We have all read 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier,' and I want to ask you, your honor, to prevent a repetition of the fate of this character by Mr. Christensen. That he not be turned into a tin soldier who would have to suffer more and more new misadventures while in the SIZO," the attorney concluded his speech and asked the court to choose for the Dane any measure of prevention that does not entail incarceration.

"They took away my Bible and I consider that unfair"

Then the floor was granted to Dennis Christensen himself. He spoke in Danish.

"I am an honest and peaceful person, who respects the convictions of other people, even if they are not the same as my own," the Dane began. "I conduct myself this way always and I will do so in the future. Therefore I consider that everybody has the right to express his convictions. I cannot and I do not wish to threaten and exert influence on investigators so that they think as I do. I always have respected the personnel of state agencies. I will not prevent investigators from conducting an investigation. I have never engaged in criminal activity and I cannot do so, since that contradicts everything that I believe and that I love and base my life upon. I am not a criminal."

Christensen described how he has lived many years in Orel along with his wife, Irina, and he loves this city very much and participated in its beautification. The Dane described how since 2009 he has been an individual businessman, a carpenter. "There are people who are very satisfied with my work and value me as a person, who does nobody any harm. I do not want to quit engaging in my business. In addition, I have many friends in Orel whom I love. I have an apartment and car here. But the F.S.B. has besmirched my name, honor, and reputation with its accusation. This is a false accusation. I do not intend to leave Orel and Russia, and I will defend myself. I want for my life to be returned to me," Christensen said.

He complained about the conditions of his detention. The Dane is "in custody" and for him it is "very cold and damp." Since he was not given warm clothing, he has suffered chronic illnesses. "I need professional treatment which I cannot get here [in the SIZO]. Besides, I can take a shower only once a week and the other days I use a bottle. There is no hot water here. They took away my Bible, and I consider that unfair," the Dane explained. He concluded his speech with an appeal to Judge Paukov and asked to let him return to his wife "so that we may be together."

Фото: Открытая Россия
 Фото: Открытая Россия
The floor was given next to the state's prosecutor, Elena Chernikova, who immediately called for casting emotion aside. Chernikova said that all requirements of legislation with respect to Christensen have been observed and the measure of prevention in the form of detention in custody "has a preventive character," since there exists the likelihood that a man who faces ten years in jail will try to flee from the investigation. The prosecutor noted that Christensen's guilt is not being considered in this judicial proceeding: "This remains to be clarified by the investigation, but the possible participation in a crime has been confirmed." Chernikova asked the judge to take into account that the crime of which the Dane is accused "pertains to the category of crimes against the state." "At the original stage, the court of the first instance made a legal and reasonable decision. I ask that it be left without change and that the appeal be denied," the prosecutor said.

In his final statement, Dennis Christensen again asked for selecting for him a milder measure, after which the judge left for the conference room. Upon return, he read the resolution portion of the decision: to leave the Dane in the SIZO; and he left the room. Christensen's companions who gathered around were left standing as they listened to the translator giving him the essence of Judge Paukov's words. (tr. by PDS, posted 23 June 2017)

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