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11 November 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: Prison mosques, churches, and prayer rooms closed down

Kazakhstan has recently closed mosques, churches and prayer rooms in prisons, citing two laws restricting freedom of religion or belief before they came into force, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "Mosques and Russian Orthodox churches were built in prisons in violation of building regulations and the law", Aliya Kadenova of the Interior Ministry told Forum 18. "They are illegal – that's why they are being closed down." She refused to say why, if they had been built illegally, no prison governors had been prosecuted. "How can these Orthodox churches have been built illegally?" Fr Aleksandr Suvorov of the Astana and Almaty Orthodox Diocese asked. "Prisons are zones under the strictest of controls." Muslim Board spokesperson Ongar Omirbek told Forum 18 that "we complained to the state about this – verbally and in writing. But they didn't listen. Prisoners have now been left without prayer rooms." Also some prisoners state that they have been placed in solitary confinement, on the instructions of the KNB secret police, for praying Muslim prayers.

7 November 2011

UZBEKISTAN: New haj pilgrimage, same old restrictions

The Uzbek authorities have again this year imposed severe restrictions on how many pilgrims could take part in this year's haj pilgrimage, now underway in Saudi Arabia. Only 5,080 out of a potential quota of about 28,000 travelled to Mecca. About as many pilgrims travelled from Kyrgyzstan as from Uzbekistan, more than five times more populous. An official of one Sergeli District mahalla (neighbourhood), with between 3,000 and 7,000 residents, told Forum 18 News Service that "our mahalla will be able to send pilgrims only in 2012. Several people are on the waiting list but maybe only one will go." As before, an "unwritten instruction" banned would-be pilgrims under the age of 45, officials of a local mahalla committee in Tashkent told Forum 18. Pilgrims faced official screening, while secret police officers reportedly accompany the pilgrims. An Imam outside Tashkent, who did not wish to be named for fear of state reprisals, complained that "unofficial payments" more than doubled the cost of the haj. "The number of applicants would be much, much higher if the cost was not so high," he lamented to Forum 18.

21 October 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: Application to join Venice Commission on day laws violating human rights commitments signed

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed two laws violating international human rights commitments the same day the country applied for full membership of the Council of Europe's Commission for Democracy through Law, or Venice Commission, Forum 18 News Service notes. Nazgul Yergaliyeva of the Legal Policy Research Centre in Almaty told Forum 18 that Kazakhstan "should demonstrate in practice that it adheres to the fundamental values of the rule of law, human rights and democracy, which are the founding principles of the Venice Commission". Vyacheslav Abramov of Freedom House commented that if the application is accepted, "it will be a clear signal to Kazakhstan that it can continue violating human rights". Meanwhile the government's Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) claims it has revoked a ban on a visit by an Islamic author, Imam Shamil Alyautdinov of Moscow's Memorial Mosque. However the ARA insists that the imam cannot give any book presentations in bookshops or universities, as this is banned under the new Religion Law.

19 October 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: Laws enforced although not yet in force

Kazakhstan is enforcing laws before they have come into force, Forum 18 News Service has found. In Atyrau, police and KNB secret police officers raided a meeting for worship of an officially registered Protestant church, New Life, claiming that under the new Religion Law the church cannot meet outside its legal address. The church had been forced to meet away from its legal address because of pressure from the KNB. During the raid, a 17-year old woman was hit by a policeman, leaving her unconscious. No action seems to be being taken against the policeman responsible for the attack, even though church members state that a Public Prosecutor's Office official was a witness. In the commercial capital Almaty, Jehovah's Witnesses sharing their beliefs were briefly detained by police, who stated that they were doing this as the new Religion Law bans missionary activity on the street. When other Jehovah's Witnesses pointed out that the Law was not yet in force, their colleagues were released. Hare Krishna devotees, Ahmadi Muslims and Catholics have all expressed concern to Forum 18 about the new laws and their impact, but do not wish to comment publicly.

13 October 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: President signs two laws restricting freedom of religion or belief

It was made public today (13 October) that Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev has signed two new laws imposing severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The two laws have attracted strong criticism from civil society organisations, human rights defenders and many religious communities in Kazakhstan, as well as from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which the country chaired in 2010. Both new laws are expected to come into force on 24 October. OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) spokesperson Jens Eschenbaecher told Forum 18 that the ODIHR was disappointed that the laws were signed into force. "The legislation appears to unnecessarily restrict the freedom of religion or belief and is poised to limit the exercise of this freedom in Kazakhstan", he told Forum 18. Nazgul Yergalieva of the Almaty-based Legal Policy Research Centre observed to Forum 18 that "strict regulation and limitation of fundamental rights, such as freedom of religion, by governments has already proved to be a dangerous path, leading to social tension and resentment".

29 September 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: Two repressive new laws sent to President for signature

Two new laws seriously restricting freedom of religion or belief were passed by Kazakhstan's Senate, the upper house of Parliament, today (29 September). Both laws now only need President Nursultan Nazarbaev's signature to become law. Previous similar laws were rejected by the Constitutional Council as "unconstitutional", and were also heavily criticised by an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Legal Opinion for breaking the country's human rights commitments. Both the current laws have been in preparation for many months, have been rushed through Parliament with great speed, and are now with the President for signature. Commenting on the previous OSCE Legal Opinion, Zhanna Onlasheva of the state Agency of Religious Affairs, who drafted the laws, told Forum 18 News Service that "We set out our position to the OSCE that we didn't agree with their view. We stuck to our position". The laws were passed as the Military Affairs Directorate of Almaty's Turksib District wrote to local religious communities, ordering them to "provide information on citizens on record as followers of non-traditional religions and radical religious views" - without being able to define what these are - and a Protestant was fined for praying for someone else's health.

27 September 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: "A new wave of persecution has begun once more"

Unless Viktor Gutyar succeeds in his appeal, he expects the administrative fine of nearly ten months' minimum wage for leading an unregistered religious community to be docked from his wages as a coalminer. He was not even present when his church in Satpaev in central Kazakhstan was raided on Sunday morning, 11 September. His was one of five Baptist congregations raided in Karaganda Region in September, including a Harvest Festival in Zhezkazgan attended by 150 people raided by police and riot police on Sunday 25 September. "A new wave of persecution," is how one Baptist described it. "They refuse to register in accordance with our Religion Law, so it's their problem," Mereke Myrzabekova of Zhezkazgan's Internal Policy Department told Forum 18. She admitted they would not have been raided had they been watching football or drinking vodka together "because that's not religion". Shymkent's Ahmadi Muslim community has lost its latest appeal against a ban on using their mosque. "All we want is for our mosque to be allowed to reopen," one Ahmadi told Forum 18. And two Jehovah's Witnesses in Kyzylorda failed to overturn punishments – a seven-day jail term and a fine - for holding a religious meeting in a private home.

23 September 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: Parliamentary adoption of restrictive laws imminent?

Two laws imposing severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief could possibly be adopted by Kazakhstan's Senate, the upper house of Parliament, as early as next Thursday (29 September). Both laws passed through the Majilis, the lower house, in one day and reached a Senate committee the same day. One observer described the speed of passage to Forum 18 News Service as "unprecedented", and a Majilis press spokesperson was unable to say whether any laws had ever had a quicker passage. An official of the government's Agency of Religious Affairs confirmed to Forum 18 that the two laws would be considered at the Senate's plenary session on 29 September, but would not say if they would complete their passage within one session. Human rights defenders and some religious communities have already told Forum 18 of their deep concern at many of the provisions, which violate Kazakhstan's international human rights commitments. The first proposed law, a new Religion Law, would among other restrictions impose a complex four-tier registration system, ban unregistered religious activity, and impose compulsory censorship. The second proposed law amends nine legal provisions, and its changes to Article 375 of the Code of Administrative Offences and to the Law on the Rights of the Child could have a more far-reaching impact on freedom of religion or belief.

21 September 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: Two repressive laws heading through Parliament at "unprecedented" speed

Within hours today (21 September) two controversial new laws which – if adopted by the Senate and signed into law by Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev – will impose severe restrictions on people exercising their freedom of religion moved decisively towards adoption. The Lower House of Parliament, the Majilis, approved them this morning. In the afternoon the two laws were given their initial presentation to the Social and Cultural Development Committee of the Senate, the Upper House. Forum 18 News Service has learned that privately many Majilis deputies were angry at provisions of the laws and the speed which the government is pushing the laws through Parliament, but no-one voted against either law. In discussion of both laws – a proposed new Religion Law and a separate law amending other laws affecting freedom of religion or belief - the fundamental incompatibility of both laws and current state actions with Kazakhstan's international human rights commitments do not appear to have been publicly discussed.

20 September 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: "To prepare the public for a discriminatory new law"

Officials of Kazakhstan's Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), the state-backed Muslim Board, "anti-sect" personnel, and local administrations have held public meetings praising the so-called "traditional religions" and attacking so-called "non-traditional religions". The ruling Nur Otan political party has also held similar meetings. ARA regional departments and local administrations across Kazakhstan have also demanded that members of religious minorities provide detailed information on their activities – sometimes on a weekly basis. Former state religious affairs officials, who wished to remain unnamed, have told Forum 18 News Service that religious communities should not be divided into categories such as "traditional" and "non-traditional". One commented that "the word 'non-traditional' gives the public a negative image". An Ahmadi Muslim, who wished to remain unnamed for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that they thought that the campaign is to "prepare the public for a discriminatory new Law". Protestants have also suggested that this is the motivation. Tomorrow (21 September) Forum 18 understands that the first reading of two laws restricting freedom of religion or belief is due to take place in the country's Parliament.

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