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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".

5 February 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: "To counter manifestations of religious extremism and terrorism"

At least eight separate meetings for worship in Kazakhstan were raided by the authorities in January, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Raids on Baptists were made, police claimed, "to counter manifestations of religious extremism and terrorism". It seems that some raids – which police insist were not raids - took place after official monitoring of the religious communities. Speaking of a raid on Jehovah's Witnesses, police Major Kanat Rakhmetzhanov told Forum 18 that: "It is not against the law to gather to watch football, read poetry or drink vodka. But our lads wouldn't have gone to such a meeting for no reason. We had reliable information that prayers were being said." Fines for the unregistered exercise of religious freedom were imposed on three Baptist pastors. Police gave evidence that Pastor Aleksandr Kerker illegally "stood at the pulpit and read Psalms from the Bible, then those present sang Christian hymns". He – with the other two pastors – were each fined the equivalent of nearly two months' average wages for this "offence".

25 January 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: "Protect us from officials' lawlessness"

Mosques in Kazakhstan continue to be denied re-registration – and so permission to exist – if they will not join the state-backed Muslim Board, Forum 18 News Service has found. Independent and ethnic minority mosques are being particularly targeted. In one example, Imam Nurmuhamed Ahmedyanov of Abai District Mosque was "deceived .. into writing a letter" to a court that "I do not mind the liquidation of the Mosque". The Mosque has now been closed and officials denied all responsibility when questioned by Forum 18. Members of the only remaining ethnic Tatar-Bashkir mosque, the historic Din-Muhammad Mosque in Petropavl, have come under heavy pressure. For example, one night the state Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) telephoned the Imam and some elderly members of the community for an 09.00 meeting with the Head of the Region's administration Serik Bilyalov. He threatened them that if they did not join the Muslim Board the community would be liquidated and the mosque would be taken over by the local authorities who would use it for some public non-religious purpose. A central ARA official claimed to Forum 18 that "there is no pressure on the mosques".

22 January 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Seven large fines for "illegal missionary activity" – so far

Seven individuals - four Jehovah's Witnesses, two Muslims and a Protestant – are known to have been prosecuted since August 2012 for "illegal missionary activity", Forum 18 News Service has learned. Many are being given the maximum fine of 100 Minimum Financial Indicators, which in many parts of Kazakhstan represents several months' average wages. At least three more individuals are known to be expecting prosecution. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 they fear that the fines already handed down "will no doubt further embolden the Agency of Religious Affairs [ARA] and local law enforcement officials to arrest Jehovah's Witnesses". Zhorabek Daurenov of the ARA Department in Astana defended such fines on a local Jehovah's Witness and a Protestant. "If the Religion Law had been against the Constitution, it wouldn't have been adopted," he claimed to Forum 18.

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