Mr. Christensen is due to give his closing statement on Monday before Judge Aleksei Rudnev, who is then to set a date for the verdict. This is an important test of religious freedom. To deny Mr. Christensen his liberty for another day would aggravate the already severe violation of his human rights. If the judge imposes additional time in jail, then he and the prosecutors should be subjected to sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, designed for just this purpose, to punish human rights violators. The whole spectacle also defies a core promise of the Russian Constitution, which says everyone “shall be guaranteed the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion,” including the right not to profess religion, and to “freely choose, possess and disseminate religious and other views.” It is appalling — but telling — that in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, prosecutors trample their own nation’s constitutional guarantees. Mr. Christensen’s offense was, according to the charge sheet, unlocking a hall for worship.
In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses should be labeled an extremist organization . This absurdity gave the security services a green light to carry out arrests across the country. In the case of Mr. Christensen, they tapped his phone and put him under surveillance. In fact, there is nothing extremist or criminal about his faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses reject subservience to the state, refuse military service, do not vote and view God as the only true leader. Jehovah’s Witnesses were subject to punishment in Soviet times, too, and Mr. Christensen aptly told Reuters during breaks in his trial, “I’m afraid that history is now repeating itself. I’m afraid that it’s actually like Stalin has come back.”
Mr. Rudnev might want to take a look at remarks by Mr. Putin on Dec. 11 during a Kremlin meeting with the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. The respected political scientist Yekaterina Shulman told Mr. Putin that, of the 489 entries on the list of extremist organizations, 404 of them were Jehovah’s Witnesses chapters, even though “they certainly do not incite violence or carry it out.” Mr. Putin said, “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too. I don’t quite understand why they are persecuted. So this should be looked into.”
The president needs to look no further than the vast security apparatus he controls and the pliable courts. Russia must cease this painful and unwarranted persecution.