UZBEKISTAN: Judge defends massive fines and jail sentence
Judge Eshemarat Atajanov has vigorously defended to Forum 18 News Service his imposition of massive fines and a seven-day prison term for unregistered religious activity. "The activity of unregistered religious communities is forbidden in Uzbekistan," he told Forum 18. "But Salavat Serikbayev, Jumabai Senetullayev and Lepes Omarov still continued the activity of their illegal community, in spite of countless warnings." Such penalties are barred by the international human rights standards Uzbekistan has acceded to. As well as jailing Lepes Omarov, Judge Atajanov fined the other two Protestant leaders over 50 times the minimum monthly salary each, solely for leading an unregistered church. Muynak, where the three live, is known for its poverty following the ecological disaster around the Aral Sea. An intense crackdown against religious freedom and other human rights in Uzbekistan is in progress.
"The activity of unregistered religious communities is forbidden in Uzbekistan," he told Forum 18 from Muynak on 14 July. "But Salavat Serikbayev, Jumabai Senetullayev and Lepes Omarov still continued the activity of their illegal community, in spite of countless warnings." Serikbayev and Senetullayev were each given fines of about 552,000 Uzbek Soms [2,840 Norwegian Kroner, 360 Euros, or 450 US Dollars], more than 50 times the minimum monthly wage in a town noted for its poverty. The average monthly salary, for the entire country, was estimated in 2005 to be around 60 US Dollars. Omarov received the seven day prison term.
Judge Atajanov explained the size of the fines and the prison term by saying that the three Protestants had broken Article 240 of the Code of Administrative Offences several times previously.
Fines under Article 240 of the Code of Administrative Offences - which punishes "breaking the Law on Religious Organisations" – were increased tenfold last December as the latest crackdown on religious activity began in earnest. Fines for breaking this article are now 50 to 100 times the minimum monthly wage (see F18News 27 January 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=720).
Religious activity is particularly difficult in Karakalpakstan. The regional authorities have banned the activity of all non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities by denying them official registration. Under Uzbekistan's harsh laws on religion – and in defiance of the country's international human rights commitments – all unregistered religious activity is illegal and punishable under the Criminal and Administrative Codes. Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees have faced particular persecution in Karakalpakstan. Protestant students in the regional capital Nukus have long been singled out for pressure (see eg. F18News 5 May 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=774 and 26 January 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=719).
Protestant sources told Forum 18 that on 3 July, Judge Atajanov found Serikbayev, the unregistered Pentecostal church's 31-year-old pastor, and Senetullayev, a 43-year-old church leader, guilty of breaking Article 240. As well as suffering fines, both had Christian literature confiscated: five Bibles, five New Testaments, 54 Christian books which had been brought into Uzbekistan through official channels, and the "Jesus Film" on video (a dramatisation of St Luke's Gospel).
Religious literature confiscated by the authorities has often been burnt (see F18News 6 September 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=643) and religious literature censorship has recently been tightened (see F18News 29 June 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=805).
A criminal case had been brought against Omarov in June under Article 216-2 of the criminal code, which punishes "breaking the law on religious organisations" with up to three years' imprisonment. Christian literature was also seized from his home (see F18News 3 July 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=807). "In the end the criminal case against Omarov was changed into an administrative prosecution," Judge Atajanov told Forum 18 without giving any explanation. "Serikbayev, Senetullayev and Omarov were all punished under Article 240 of the code of administrative offences." Protestant sources told Forum 18 that the prosecutor's office dropped the criminal case against Omarov on 5 July "in the absence of evidence of a crime" and that he was then accused of violating Part 1 of Article 240 of the code of administrative offences. Judge Atajanov handed down the prison sentence the same day.
It remains unclear how the two Protestants will be able to pay these enormous fines. While Uzbekistan's minimum monthly wage is currently 9,500 Soms (49 Norwegian Kroner, 6 Euros, or 8 US Dollars), few in the town of Muynak earn more than 20 dollars a month. Karakalpakstan is the poorest region in Uzbekistan, while Muynak is in decline following the ecological disaster around the Aral Sea. A former port which is now 100 kilometres (60 miles) away as the sea has receded, the town faces unemployment of 80 per cent.
The Muynak Pentecostal church – like all other Protestant churches in Karakalpakstan - has long faced hostility from local officials, including police raids and torture of individual church members. "In effect we are being forced to live like the early Christians of the catacombs," Pastor Serikbayev told Forum 18 back in 2003. "We have to hold our religious meetings in the desert, several kilometres from the town, for fear of persecution by the authorities." (See F18News 17 March 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=7).
The government's intensive new crackdown on religious activity has seen registration stripped from an estimated dozen Protestant churches this year, repeated raids on religious communities of many faiths, increased fines for peaceful religious activity, increased penalties for publishing, distributing and importing religious literature the government regards as "illegal", expulsion of foreigners engaged in religious activity, and the closure of charities affiliated with or which the government suspects of being affiliated with religious communities (see F18News 3 July 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=807). (END)
For a personal commentary by a Muslim scholar, advocating religious freedom for all faiths as the best antidote to Islamic religious extremism in Uzbekistan, see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=338.
For more background, see Forum 18's Uzbekistan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=777.
For an analysis of whether the May 2005 Andijan events changed state religious policy in the year following, see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=778. For an outline of what is known about Akramia itself, see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=586, and for a May 2005 analysis of what happened in Andijan http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=567.
A survey of the religious freedom decline in the eastern part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) area is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=806 and a paper on religious intolerance in Central Asia is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=815.
A printer-friendly map of Uzbekistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=uzbeki
12 July 2006
An official of Kyrgyzstan's state Religious Affairs Committee has told Forum 18 News Service that the Religion Law could soon be amended to restrict evangelism or proselytism. "I hope that the new draft of the Law will be as close as possible to international standards," But, "we have to take local reality as our starting point," Shamsybek Zakirov told Forum 18. He expressed concern about anger from local Muslims in southern Kyrgyzstan, directed at the Religious Affairs Committee and local Protestants at Protestant evangelism. Zakirov confirmed statements made by Pentecostal Pastor Dzhanybek Zhakipov to Forum 18 that pressure by the authorities on local Protestants has increased. Government minister Adakhan Madumarov today (12 July) was reported as also indicating that the Religion Law may be tightened. The problem of intolerance of Christians and other religious minorities – leading to violent attacks and even murders – is widespread in Central Asia.
3 July 2006
In Muynak in Karakalpakstan region – where all Protestant activity is banned – local Protestant Lepes Omarov faces up to three years' imprisonment on criminal charges for "breaking the law on religious organisations". The duty officer at the police station told Forum 18 News Service that Omarov was released by the police after several hours' detention in late June after signing "an undertaking not to leave the country". Forum 18 has also learnt that Pentecostal pastor Dmitry Shestakov from Andijan has fled Uzbekistan to escape criminal charges also lodged in June in retaliation for his church work. In Kuvasai in Fergana region, the NSS secret police have questioned the 11-year-old son of the Vitkovsky couple in whose home a Baptist church meets. The Church's services have repeatedly been raided in recent months and a judge threatened Viktor Vitkovsky with imprisonment on 27 June. He and his wife were due in court on 3 July.
29 June 2006
All Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) states are committed to "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief," recognising that this is a litmus test of the state of human rights. OSCE commitments to human rights have been reiterated and enhanced. Yet some OSCE states, especially in the eastern part of the OSCE region where Forum 18 News Service works, repeatedly break their commitments and attack religious freedom. Examples include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which commit persistent and even worsening religious freedom and other human rights violations. Forum 18 here surveys the situation. The question facing the OSCE is: How, concretely, are its repeated commitments to free, democratic, tolerant societies which respect human rights to be implemented, faced with states whose concrete actions directly contradict their commitments?