KAZAKHSTAN: Criminal case against Baptist pastor withdrawn
Pastor Sergei Nizhegorodtsev, leader of an unregistered Baptist church in the village of Georgievka in Eastern Kazakhstan region will not now face prosecution for continuing to lead services in defiance of a court-ordered ban. Prosecutors withdrew the criminal case against him on 28 May, local Baptists reported. "The case against Nizhegorodtsev was withdrawn for absence of the substance of a crime," deputy procurator Erzhan Zharylgapov told Forum 18 News Service. He said he had received appeals "from everywhere" in support of the pastor. "Tell people to stop sending these letters!"
Nizhegorodtsev was informed on 12 May that he faced a criminal case for refusing to comply with a court-ordered ban on his unregistered church holding services. The move came two weeks after the church's Easter service was raided (see F18News 19 May 2003).
The charge sheet against him, dated 14 May, declared that "officials of the police of Zharma district established that in the given house [Nizhegorodtsev's home] a service was being held by the Evangelical Christians/Baptists in honour of the Easter festival under the leadership of the elder of the group of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, Sergei Alekseevich Nizhegorodtsev, with the participation of 22 parishioners". The procuracy argued that as the court had banned the church from meeting, this constituted a crime under Article 362 part 1 of the criminal code, which punishes wilful refusal to carry out a court order with up to four months' imprisonment.
As part of the long-running case, initiated after Nizhegorodtsev refused to pay a fine imposed in February 2002 for leading the unregistered church, court enforcers confiscated furniture and other family possessions, including a 25-year-old washing machine. They would also have confiscated the family calf, but said they had nowhere to keep it.
"The case against Nizhegorodtsev was withdrawn for absence of the substance of a crime," Zharylgapov told Forum 18. He added that he had replied to Nizhegorodtsev's fellow Baptists who had written in his support to explain that the case had been withdrawn and why.
Nizhegorodtsev's church – which belongs to the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists - refuses to accept registration, as it believes it would lead to unacceptable interference by the secular authorities. Many Baptist and Jehovah's Witness congregations in Kazakhstan have faced harassment for functioning without registration, either because they do not want registration or have been denied it.
19 May 2003
Pastor Sergei Nizhegorodtsev of Georgievka in Eastern Kazakhstan region was told on 12 May that he faces a criminal case for refusing to comply with a court-ordered ban on his church holding services, according to a 13 May statement from local Baptists reaching Forum 18 News Service. The move came two weeks after the church's Easter service was raided. Officials deny they are conducting a campaign against the church. "There is nothing illegal in the actions of the law enforcement agencies," assistant procurator Aset Biisekenov insisted to Forum 18. The launch of the criminal case against the pastor came at the same time as an international religious freedom conference was being held in Almaty to inaugurate the Kazakhstan branch of the International Religious Liberty Association.
22 April 2003
Despite authoritarian rule, high levels of censorship of the local media and periodic barring of access to foreign-based political opposition websites, Central Asia's governments have so far only enacted limited censorship over access to religious websites based outside the region, a Forum 18 News Service investigation has found. Uzbekistan permanently bars access to the London-based website of Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, though not to its Pakistan-related site. In several Uzbek Internet cafes, Forum 18 even came across the notice: "Viewing of religious and pornographic sites is forbidden". But with low Internet use in Central Asia and a population too poor to be able to afford access, Central Asia's governments – which to a greater or lesser extent try to control all religious activity - may believe they do not need to impose religious censorship on the Internet.
20 March 2003
A series of raids on Baptist churches that refuse on principle to register with the authorities and fines imposed on their leaders under the administrative code have highlighted continuing attempts by local officials to punish unregistered religious activity, although Kazakhstan's religion law does not make unregistered activity illegal. Jehovah's Witnesses – who do not refuse registration - report that they have seen 28 administrative cases over the past year against communities that have been denied registration on various pretexts. Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee told Forum 18 News Service that the religion law has greater weight than Article 375 of the administrative code – under which the fines have been imposed - and therefore officials have no right to "persecute" believers for refusing to register a religious community.