MOSCOW — A regional court in western Russia on Wednesday sentenced a Danish Jehovah’s Witness to six years in prison, in arguably the most severe crackdown on religious freedom in Russia in recent years.

The court in Oryol found Dennis Christensen guilty of extremism, making him the first Jehovah’s Witness in Russia to be sent to prison. Christensen was detained during a police raid on a local prayer meeting he was leading in May 2017.

“I do not agree with this judgment, it’s a big mistake,” Christensen told reporters after the sentencing in the city of Oryol. His wife, Irina Christensen, added: “I’m really sad that such a thing is happening in Russia, very sad. The same thing could happen to any of us.”

Russia in recent years has used its vaguely worded extremism laws to go after dissenters, opposition activists and most recently religious minorities. Russia officially banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017 and declared the religious group an extremist organization.

Nearly 100 members of the group face charges in Russia, and more than 20 of them are in jail awaiting trial. Before the ban, the world headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed about 170,000 adherents in Russia.

Paul Gillies, spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said in an emailed statement that Christensen did not commit any crime and that he was convicted “merely for practicing his Christian faith.”

“This verdict reveals just how fragile religious freedom has become in Russia,” Gillies said.

Amnesty International has said that it considers Christensen and other Jehovah’s Witnesses on trial as prisoners of conscience.


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