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Bachelet on criminalising right to freedom of religion

“We are deeply concerned about the sentencing in a Russian court on Wednesday of a Jehovah’s Witness to six years in prison on charges of ‘organising the activity of a banned extremist organisation’.

Dennis Christensen was detained in May 2017, a month after Russia’s Supreme Court declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be an extremist group. Christensen was accused of continuing to ensure the work of the organization in Oryol, in the west of the country, despite knowing it had been banned. Criminal cases have since then been opened against more than 100 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including at least 18 who are held in pre-trial detention. Others have been subjected to various measures of restraint, including house arrest and travel restrictions.

The harsh sentence imposed on Christensen creates a dangerous precedent, and effectively criminalises the right to freedom of religion or belief for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia – in contravention of the State’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Various UN human rights bodies, including the UN Human Rights Committee and a number of UN Special Rapporteurs, have raised similar concerns in recent years.

We urge the Government of Russia to revise the Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activity with a view to clarifying the vague and open-ended definition of ‘extremist activity’, and ensuring that the definition requires an element of violence or hatred. We also call on the authorities to drop charges against and to release all those detained for exercising their rights to freedom of religion or belief, the freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”

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