ORYOL, Russia (Reuters) – The first Jehovah’s Witness detained for extremism in Russia has likened the authorities’ behavior to that of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union ahead of a verdict in his trial.
Armed police scaled the gates of a compound where the Christian denomination was meeting in Oryol, some 200 miles (320 km) south of Moscow, in May 2017 and detained Dennis Christensen, a Danish national, on extremism charges.
Months - Cell - Drug - Dealers - Wife
He has spent the last 20 months in a cold cell with suspected drug dealers and only been allowed to meet his wife, separated by bars and a corridor, twice a month. If convicted, he could spend up to a decade in jail.
The trial of the 46-year-old builder is seen by the United States and the European Union as a litmus test for religious freedom, and the latest twist in a worsening East-West standoff.
US-headquartered - Jehovah - Witnesses - Pressure - Years
The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.
But Russia’s latest falling-out with the West, triggered by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, spurred a more determined drive to push out “the enemy within”.
Crimea - Poster - Hung - Moscow - Kremlin
After Crimea was seized, a giant poster hung in central Moscow bearing the faces of Kremlin critics and labeling them as “a fifth column”. One of them, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, was later shot dead.
“HISTORY IS REPEATING ITSELF”
Atmosphere - Court - Oryol - Jehovah - Witnesses
It was in that atmosphere that a court in Oryol outlawed the local Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2016, and Russia’s Supreme Court in 2017 found the group to be an “extremist” organization and ordered it to disband nationwide.
More than 100 criminal cases have been opened against Jehovah’s Witnesses and some of their publications are on a...
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