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1 May 2013

UZBEKISTAN: Devout Muslim "may receive up to 15 years" in jail

Uzbekistan is prosecuting Muslim prisoner of conscience Khayrullo Tursunov for exercising his freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has learned. He was extradited from Kazakhstan – in violation of that country's international human rights obligations – and immediately arrested by Uzbekistan's NSS secret police, the Interior Ministry, the ordinary police, and the Prosecutor General's Office. His trial was due to begin on 15 April, but has not yet happened. Tursunov "may receive up to 15 years" in jail, police Colonel Isameddin Irisov told Forum 18. "Tursunov is a devout follower of Islam, and in Uzbekistan he peacefully practiced his faith outside state-controlled Islam", exiled human rights defender Mutabar Tadjibayeva of the Fiery Hearts Club told Forum 18. Some relatives suspect that the authorities may have sought Tursunov in revenge for his wife's escape from Uzbekistan. Nodira Buriyeva fled Uzbekistan after being interrogated and threatened with rape before a relative was jailed for being a devout Muslim. Tursunov had fled to Kazakhstan to practice his faith and join his wife and their children, but now faces being tortured in Uzbekistan.

26 April 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Religious free speech "doesn't exist"

Kazakhstan's National Library in Almaty has had its religious books checked, its General Director Gulisa Balabekova told Forum 18 News Service, but "there were no problems". The check was part of the compulsory prior censorship of all printed and imported religious literature and controls on where religious literature can be sold or distributed. In other religious free speech restrictions, who can lead or address worship services is restricted, while discussing faith with other people in public is banned – with punishments for those who ignore these bans. "Unfortunately the right to freedom of speech in the area of religion doesn't exist in Kazakhstan," independent journalist Sergei Duvanov told Forum 18.

22 April 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Four raids, heart attack, eight fines – amid presidential claims of religious freedom

Within 48 hours of a claim by Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev that "religious freedom is fully secured", seven members of a small Pentecostal Church – four of them in their sixties – were given heavy fines for meeting for Easter Sunday worship. The leader, Aleksandr Balaev, was fined the equivalent of six months of his pension, he told Forum 18 News Service. Galina Gileva, who is 73, complained that during the raid police "brought me to such a position of stress that I suffered a heart attack". The raid on the Church in Zhaskent was one of four recent raids on religious worship. Lt-Colonel Nikolai Narkhov, head of Karabalyk Police in Kostanai Region, refused absolutely to answer Forum 18's questions as to why about 15 police officers and officials raided a Jehovah's Witness meeting, seizing religious literature.

18 April 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Imprisoned atheist mad, bad, or neither?

Imprisoned atheist Aleksandr Kharlamov is due to undergo a second officially-ordered psychiatric examination since his 14 March arrest, as Kazakhstan's prosecutors seek to jail him on criminal charges of "inciting religious hatred". He rejects the accusation, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years' jail. "No-one suffered from what he wrote on religion", police Captain Alikhat Turakpayev admitted to Forum 18 News Service. Kuat Rakhimberdin of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law told Forum 18 that "Kharlamov is involved in many types of activity, but he annoyed the police and this appears to have been what triggered the case". Rakhimberdin added that "his writings on religion are just the excuse. But in any case, this is a violation of his right to freedom of speech and religion." Captain Turakpayev refused to discuss whether the prosecution was motivated by the police's annoyance with Kharlamov. He also refused to explain to Forum 18 on what, if any, medically-relevant evidence he ordered two psychiatric examinations of Kharlamov.

16 April 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: "He needs local state permission to preach"

Officials who raided a Protestant church in Stepnogorsk in Kazakhstan's northern Akmola Region, as the Easter Sunday morning service was finishing, have defended the raid. "The visiting pastor needed permission to preach here," Duman Uvaideldinov of Stepnogorsk police Criminal Investigation Department – who led the raid - insisted to Forum 18 News Service. "He will receive an official warning." The raid followed a visit by a dual-role official of a state-backed "anti-sect" centre and the local Internal Policy Department. Pastor Igor Andreikin and others from New Life Pentecostal Church are also concerned by an apparent attempt to discredit or blackmail them. An unidentified "law-enforcement officer" attempted to send two young women into a sauna session with men from the church, to be closely followed by two ordinary police officers. Both the ordinary police and the KNB secret police have denied to Forum 18 that they had any involvement. Pastor Andreikin told Forum 18 that as "boundaries have been crossed", there is nothing to stop officials planting drugs on church leaders or using other methods of framing them. He told Forum 18 that he was going public on this case to try to stop such methods being used in future.

10 April 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Never too old to be fined

Among seven members of a small Baptist church in Ayagoz in East Kazakhstan Region punished for holding unregistered religious services were two grandmothers in their late seventies, according to the verdicts seen by Forum 18 News Service. All seven were fined the equivalent of nearly two months' local average wages for a teacher. The fines followed a 4 April police raid on a prayer service. Asked by Forum 18 whether judges and court officials were not embarrassed to be involved in punishing religious believers for meeting for prayer, the judges' assistant at Ayagoz District Court laughed. Meanwhile, a court decision on another Baptist Vyacheslav Cherkasov that Bibles confiscated from him should be destroyed has been overturned and the Bibles returned. But the fine remains. Journalist Sergei Duvanov had predicted that the book-burning would be overturned. "But this will only happen because someone was able to report on the act of vandalism being prepared to human rights defenders in Oslo and they gave it wide publicity."

18 March 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Religious freedom fines multiply – criminal penalties to come?

If adopted in its current form, Kazakhstan's proposed new Criminal Code would allow those who lead unregistered religious communities to be imprisoned for up to three months, and those who share their faith for up to four months. The draft text – seen by Forum 18 News Service – is expected to be approved by the government in May and presented to parliament in July, Ruslan Toktagulov of the General Prosecutor's Office, who is coordinating preparation of the draft, told Forum 18 from Astana. A new Code of Administrative Offences is expected to reach parliament in the autumn, but no draft has been published. Eighteen individuals are known to Forum 18 to have been found guilty under the Code of Administrative Offences in 2013 for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. Ten were fined two months' average wages, seven were fined one month's average wage and the other was warned.

14 March 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Court-ordered religious book burning a first?

In what may be the first such instance in Kazakhstan, a court has ordered religious literature to be destroyed. A total of 121 books confiscated from a Baptist, Vyacheslav Cherkasov, were ordered destroyed in the northern Akmola Region, according to the verdict seen by Forum 18 News Service. The books comprise Bibles, Children's Bibles, and other books and leaflets on the Christian faith, mainly in the Kazakh language. Cherkasov was also fined one month's average wage. If he loses his appeal, court executors will carry out the destruction. A Justice Ministry official in the capital Astana told Forum 18 that "most likely the books would be burnt". A state Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) official told Forum 18 that "I'm not interested in whether court executors are bothered by having to destroy religious literature". Local Council of Churches Baptists told Forum 18 that "we were shocked - this is sacrilege and illegality". Human rights defender Yevgeni Zhovtis of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law sounded distressed, telling Forum 18 that "this is terrible, terrible". Religious literature is frequently confiscated, and the state appears committed to using censorship and other freedom of religion or belief violations as a means to control society.

1 March 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: "If they continue to pray, they'll be brought to legal responsibility"

The historic 19th century Din-Muhammad Mosque in Petropavl in North Kazakhstan has failed in its challenge to the state's court-ordered liquidation, while another mosque in the north-western city of Aktobe has been told it has nine months to gain re-registration to avoid liquidation. "We don't intend to close," a member of Aktobe's Nurdaulet Mosque insisted to Forum 18 News Service. "We have the right to gain registration as an independent religious organisation in accordance with the law." A state Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) official claimed to Forum 18 that "praying isn't banned – we live in a democratic state". But he went on to threaten that, "if the liquidation decision [against the Din-Muhammad Mosque] comes into legal force and if they continue to pray, they'll be brought to legal responsibility". A community member told Forum 18 that "the authorities insist we have sermons only in Kazakh. But we hold sermons in the language of the people who attend the Mosque so that they can understand what is said". Also, a small seminary attached to an Almaty Baptist church has been liquidated.

21 February 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Bookshop censorship, ban on all non-Hanafi Sunni Muslim literature

Kazakhstan continues to ban all non-Hanafi Sunni Muslim literature. State-backed Muslim Board spokesperson Ongar Omirbek told Forum 18 News Service that "only Islamic literature from the Sunni Hanafi school can be distributed, as all other Muslim schools - including Ahmadis - are banned". Shia Muslims across Kazakhstan, who asked not to be named for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that Shia literature cannot be found on sale. Local authorities and "law enforcement" agencies have been enforcing censorship – including severe limitations on the numbers of bookshops allowed to sell any kind of religious material – across Kazakhstan with raids and fines. Even some shops with permission to sell religious books such as Korans and Bibles have told Forum 18 that they do not want to do so, to avoid trouble from the authorities. Yerlan Kalmakov of Kostanai Regional Internal Policy Department, asked why people must ask for permission from the authorities, replied: "Imagine what could happen if we allow just anybody to distribute religious materials". He added that "unregistered religious organisations, which are illegal in Kazakhstan will use this and attract people to their ranks. They will thus continue their illegal existence".

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