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Jehovah's Witness released from Russian jail after serving 5 years

Jehovah's Witness released from Russian jail after serving 5 years
Dennis Christensen was released from a Russian prison on Tuesday after spending five years behind bars on charges stemming from practicing his religion. Photo courtesy of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia/Website

May 24 (UPI) -- A Danish Jehovah's Witness who was the first person to be arrested and sentenced to a Russian jail amid the Kremlin's crackdown on the religion has been released after serving five years behind bars.

The religion announced the release of Dennis Christensen, 49, and said he is to be deported to his native Denmark where he is expected to arrive Wednesday morning.

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Christensen, 49, who lived with his Russian wife in the western city of Oryol, was arrested in May 2017 and sentenced in February 2019 to six years in a penal colony on charges of organizing the activities of an extremist organization.

The Danish carpenter was the first Jehovah's Witness member to be arrested and sentenced to prison after the Russian Supreme Court outlawed the religion as an "extremist" organization in April 2017.

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Since the Supreme Court ruling, 292 criminal cases against Jehovah's Witness members have been opened in Russia, resulting in 207 sentences. There are 91 people currently in prison and 23 others under house arrest, according to the church.

Christensen was released early as his two years in pretrial detention counted toward his sentence.

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His release comes after a Russian court last June mitigated the remaining three years of his sentence to a $5,579 fine. The next day, however, the decision was appealed on accusations that he broke prison rules his church described as "trumped-up charges" that resulted in him being placed in a special punishment block cell for 10 days.

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Though Christensen's five years behind bars is the longest any member of the religion has yet spent in a Russian jail on convictions stemming from practicing the religion, prison terms have lengthened in the past year seeing several people receive eight-year sentences.

The United States has repeatedly condemned Russia's persecution of Jehovah's Witness members, and its bipartisan U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom has specifically called for Christensen's release.

In its annual report on religious freedom that was published late last month, the commission said that last year saw Russia convict 105 members of the religion, including members in occupied Crimea, which was annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

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Since the religion was outlawed, there have been nearly 2,000 police raids on the homes of Jehovah's Witness members, equally almost a raid a day, according to the church.

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