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12 February 2009

KAZAKHSTAN: "The current Religion Law is also unconstitutional"

Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council has announced that a restrictive draft Law severely restricting freedom of religion or belief is unconstitutional. President Nursultan Nazarbaev has up to one month to respond. Yevgeni Zhovtis, head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, told Forum 18 News Service that the Constitutional Council's judgement also implies that the current Religion Law is unconstitutional. The Constitutional Council referred to a part of the Constitution barring limitations on freedom of religion or belief, so "anyone charged with breaking the current Religion Law's limitations on religious freedom can cite the Constitutional Council's decision in court," Zhovtis said. "The court can then be asked to refer the current Religion Law to the Constitutional Council, for them to directly rule on the current Religion Law's constitutionality." A judge who tried a case involving unregistered Baptists has already welcomed the possibility of such a review. "It is also very important," Zhovtis told Forum 18, "that as well as looking at the draft Law, people also pay attention to the continuing violations by officials of everyone's freedom of religion or belief."

5 February 2009

KAZAKHSTAN: Media intolerance "has one source: the KNB secret police"

Human rights defenders and religious minorities have complained to Forum 18 News Service of a "wave" of hostile media coverage of religious communities. They think this is part of a government-sponsored campaign to gain greater public acceptance of a new Law restricting freedom of thought, conscience and belief. "All these articles have one source: the KNB secret police," Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, told Forum 18. Told that journalists and editors had denied this to Forum 18, she responded: "Who's going to admit such coverage is ordered?" Protestants such as Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists and Pentecostals have faced media attacks along with Ahmadi Muslims, the Hare Krishna community and Jehovah's Witnesses. One of many examples of media intolerance is four separate newspapers publishing an identical article attacking the Jehovah's Witnesses. One of the newspapers credited the article to a named former Jehovah's Witness, one credited a different author, and two of the newspapers credited KNB secret police offices in different Kazakh regions.

4 February 2009

KAZAKHSTAN: OSCE Legal Opinion seriously criticises draft Law

Four weeks after Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council began reviewing a highly restrictive Law amending various laws covering religion, the Constitutional Council has told Forum 18 News Service that it has not finished its review. Human rights defenders and religious communities remain highly concerned about the Law, which has been seriously criticised in a Legal Opinion from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) made public today (4 February). The OSCE's Legal Opinion notes that "many serious issues remain with respect to the Proposed Religion Law's compliance with international human rights standards, including in particular OSCE commitments." Kazakhstan is due to chair the OSCE in 2010, and the OSCE Legal Opinion finds that there are serious problems with the Law, when it is compared against the country's OSCE commitments and international problems. Kazakhstan – also in breach of its OSCE commitments – continues to routinely incite intolerance of religious minorities.

3 February 2009

KAZAKHSTAN: "This is a highly dangerous precedent"

Kazakhstan has resumed jailing Baptists, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Yuri Rudenko from Almaty Region was the third unregistered Baptist pastor to be jailed for three days for refusing to pay fines for unregistered worship. Baptists point out that this breaks Kazakhstan's Constitution, but officials have refused to discuss this with Forum 18. The jailing took place as Elizaveta Drenicheva, a Russian working as a missionary for the Unification Church (commonly known as the Moonies), was jailed for two years for sharing her beliefs. Other religious believers who strongly disagree with her beliefs, as well as human rights defenders, are alarmed by the jail sentence. "This is a highly dangerous precedent," one Protestant who preferred not to be identified told Forum 18. "It seems to me that any believer who preaches about sin and how to be saved from it could be convicted in the same way." Baptist churches in Akmola region have also been raided and their members questioned, and another Baptist pastor is facing the threat of jail tomorrow (4 February).

30 January 2009

KAZAKHSTAN: The court hearing which never was?

Kazakhstan has barred the Hare Krishna community's leader in Central Asia from visiting the country, Forum 18 News Service has found. Kazakh officials have claimed that US citizen Seane Hobgood (religious name Govinda Swami) was found guilty of "illegal missionary activity" by Aktobe Regional court in 2008. The alleged "illegal missionary activity" was a private talk to devotees. However, Aktobe Regional Court, Aktobe City Administrative Court and City Civil Court all confirmed to Forum 18 that they did not hear any case relating to Govinda Swami (Seane Hobgood) in 2008. Also, Govinda Swami had previously visited Kazakhstan since the alleged conviction, without being banned. Human rights defender Yevgeni Zhovtis pointed out to Forum 18 that describing Govinda Swami's talk to a registered religious community as "illegal missionary activity" is "absolute rubbish". Aktobe City Prosecutor's Office confirmed to Forum 18 that police filmed the gathering. In 2006, an American university lecturer was fined and given a deportation order, after the authorities filmed him taking part in a Bible discussion at a Baptist church he attended.

13 January 2009

KYRGYZSTAN: President's signing of restrictive Religion Law condemned

Kyrgyzstan's President, Kurmanbek Bakiev, has signed the restrictive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Tursunbek Akun, the country's Human Rights Ombudsperson, told Forum 18 that "this Law is not in accord with international human rights standards," as it "imposes a range of restrictions that will prevent small religious communities from developing." Human rights defender Aziza Abdirasulova, of the Kylym Shamy (Candle of the Century) Centre for Human Rights Protection agreed, stating that "the new Law contradicts international human rights standards – and it is not the only Law now being signed that does so," she told Forum 18. She complained that civil society and smaller religious communities had been "left on the sidelines" in the Law's drafting. Also condemning the new Law were religious communities including Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Baha'is and Hare Krishna devotees. Jens Eschenbaecher, Spokesperson for the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), told Forum 18 from Warsaw on 13 January that: "It appears that the law as signed by the President still contains many of the problematic features that were highlighted in the legal opinion which was prepared by the ODIHR and the Venice Commission."

9 January 2009

KAZAKHSTAN: Repressive actions continue, repressive law sent for review

President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan has sent a repressive new law severely limiting freedom of religion or belief for review by the country's Constitutional Council, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Meanwhile, the government continues to repress the exercise of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. A Baptist has this month had his main source of income confiscated and been fired from his job, because he led worship without state permission. Speaking of his former employer, who fired him after being visited by court officials, Pastor Aleksandr Kerker said that "he is not to blame though – he was afraid." Hare Krishna devotees have been detained by police in Almaty for handing out religious literature. Officer candidates and other students at the Kazakh Air Force's main training establishment have been warned against "religious extremism" and "religious groups non-traditional for Kazakhstan". They were also shown a film claiming that the Hare Krishna faith incites devotees to commit murder.

22 December 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Government attacks human rights defenders for criticising draft Law

As a law severely restricting freedom of religion and belief awaits Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's signature, Justice Ministry officials attacked local human rights groups for criticising the Law, accusing them of "openly lying." Denying that the Law will impose restrictions, Ministry officials claimed that "benevolent conditions" have been created for religious communities. The Law has been condemned by many religious leaders, such as Protestant leaders and Murat Telibekov of the Union of Muslims. Fr Vsevolod Chaplin of the Moscow Patriarchate pointed out to Forum 18 News Service that, under the proposed Law, "if a young person is walking past and goes into a mosque during prayers, the imam could be arrested." Fr Chaplin pointed out that he was himself a believer at the age of 13, against the wishes of his parents, which would be forbidden by the Law. Pope Benedict XVI has made an apparent oblique criticism of Kazakh policy. In a personal letter, he wrote to the Kazakh Ambassador to the Holy See that "it is incumbent upon the State to guarantee full religious freedom, but it also has the duty of learning to respect what is religious, avoiding interference in matters of faith and the conscience of the citizen."

19 December 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: "We will wait until after the New Year, and then seize his property"

Kazakhstan continues to actively violate its international human rights commitments, Forum 18 News Service has found. In the most recent of many known state actions against everyone's right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief, a Baptist is facing threats by the authorities to confiscate the major source of income for himself and his family because he led worship without state permission, the country's only Hare Krishna commune is still being pressured to accept a rubbish dump in exchange for their land, and Jehovah's Witnesses are still being denied the rights to use a private home and a Kingdom Hall they built for worship meetings. These human rights violations take place as President Nursultan Nazarbaev considers new legislation to even further restrict fundamental freedoms in the country. Among many other breaches of international human rights standards, the legal amendments would explicitly ban all unregistered religious activity. President Nazarbaev is formally due to sign or reject the amendments by around 2 January 2009.

12 December 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Secret police raid, film and investigate believers

A Protestant church's Sunday afternoon prayer meeting in the town of Aral in October was raided by police and KNB secret police without a warrant, church members told Forum 18 News Service. Officers filmed those present without their consent, summoned seven of them to the police station and tried to prosecute the leader, Indira Bukharbaeva, on administrative charges. But she was acquitted in December. Public Prosecutor Abdukarim Abdullaev told Forum 18 it was too sensitive to discuss by phone whether measures would be taken over the unauthorised filming of the church meeting. Meanwhile the KNB secret police in Taraz have lodged serious criminal charges against Protestant pastor Sarybai Tanabaev for "inciting religious intolerance" over two sermons he gave. One recording was confiscated from one church and the other apparently covertly made by the KNB secret police. The KNB secret police officer involved in the case, Major Mukhamedjan Paezov, told Forum 18 the case was initiated from the capital Astana and is being run from there.

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