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Russian court grants early release to imprisoned Jehovah's Witness

Dane Dennis Christensen was sentenced to six years in jail by a Russian court in May 2017 for continuing the activities of an extremist group for practicing his Jehova's Witnesses religion. Photo courtesy of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom/Website
Dane Dennis Christensen was sentenced to six years in jail by a Russian court in May 2017 for continuing the activities of an extremist group for practicing his Jehova's Witnesses religion. Photo courtesy of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom/Website

June 23 (UPI) -- The Jehovah's Witnesses said a Danish citizen who has been jailed in Russia since 2017 for practicing their religion was granted early release on Tuesday by a Kremlin court.

The Lgovskiy District Court in the Kursk Region that borders Ukraine granted Dennis Christensen early release at the prosecution's request, the religion said in a statement on its website.

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Christensen was sentenced to six years in prison in February 2019 on charges of continuing the activities of an extremist group. The Jehovah's Witnesses organization was banned as an extremist group in 2017.

The Danish carpenter who lives in Oryol with his Russian-citizen wife was arrested on May 25, 2017, when Federal Security Service agents broke up a Jehovah's Witnesses prayer service in a crackdown on the religion, detaining some 70-80 people.

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The church said the judge mitigated the remainder of his sentence to a $5,759 fine.

"The decision will take effect in 10 days, after which he will be able to go home to his wife, family and fellow worshipers," the statement read.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom "welcomed" the decision to grant Christensen clemency.

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"Paroling Dennis Christensen was the right thing to do and we are glad that the Russian government finally took this important step," said USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin, who advocated for Christensen's release through the commission's Religious Prisoner of Conscience Project. "We are hopeful that this represents a change in policy, yet we remain concerned about Russia's ongoing imprisonment of people for simply practicing their peaceful religious beliefs."

According to the Jehovah's Witnesses, 10 of its followers remain behind Russian bars for their beliefs while another 24 remain in pretrial detention and another 24 are under house arrest.

The USCIRF recommended in its 2020 Annual Report that the U.S. State Department designate Russia as a country of particular concern over its violations against religious freedom. It currently has Russia on its Special Watch List.

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According to the State Department's website, a CPC designation allows an economic measure, such as sanctions, to be imposed against the offending country if non-economic policy options fail to force the country to cease violating religious freedoms.

"Dennis Christensen's health noticeably deteriorated while in custody, and USCIRF is hopeful that he will recover his strength at home," Manchin added.

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