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19 March 2009

KAZAKHSTAN: Drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre closed down

State actions against freedom of religion or belief in Kazakhstan continue, Forum 18 News Service has found. Latest actions include the closure of a Christian-run rehabilitation centre for alcoholics and drug-addicts, and continuing prosecutions, fines and property confiscations against Baptists for holding unregistered worship services. Officials' "narrow interpretation" of the law in relation to the rehabilitation centre was condemned by Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee. "Non-commercial organisations must be social organisations, religious organisations or political parties and officials insist that all three be kept separate," she told Forum 18. "But this is absurd, as everything that is not forbidden should be allowed." Meanwhile, Elizaveta Drenicheva, a missionary for the Unification Church (commonly known as the Moonies) has been freed after two months' imprisonment. She had been sentenced to two years in jail for sharing her beliefs, and her criminal record has not been cancelled. Officials are also continuing to try to pressure the Hare Krishna commune near Almaty to leave its site.

17 March 2009

KAZAKHSTAN: "This is not the end of the attempt to adopt such a law"

President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan will not be challenging the finding of the Constitutional Council that the proposed new law amending various laws on religion is unconstitutional. The Constitutional Council told Forum 18 News Service that the Presidential Administration has informed it that President Nazarbaev agrees with its finding and is not planning to challenge it. However, Nikolai Golysin, the President's deputy spokesperson, told Forum 18 that "the head of state has given no official information on this. I don't know what official gave these remarks to the Constitutional Council." Many in Kazakhstan remain wary, certain that officials will try again to impose harsh new restrictions on freedom of religion and belief. "This is not the end of the attempt to adopt such a law," Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of the Almaty-based Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, told Forum 18. "I think they will try again." He believes fresh attempts could come in 2011 or 2012, after Kazakhstan has completed its chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). "But I'm not sure that they won't try again in 2009."

17 February 2009

UZBEKISTAN: Muslims and Christians latest victims of religious literature crackdown

Uzbekistan continues to attack the sharing of information and opinion in religious literature, Forum 18 News Service notes. In the most recent known cases, contributors to two Islamic religious periodicals – Irmoq (Spring) and Yetti Iqlim (Seven Climates) – are facing criminal charges, allegedly for distributing information on the Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. Obiddin Makhmudov of Uzbekistan's state Agency of Press and Information told Forum 18 that "I just found out yesterday from the national TV channel that the magazine's [Irmoq's] staff are suspected of having ties with a banned religious organisation." Baptists are being punished for distributing religious literature free-of-charge, in one case being questioned for seven hours without food or water. A different Baptist has been fired from his job as an electrician, after the NSS secret police and ordinary police confiscated his religious literature from his mother-in-law's flat. Asked by Forum 18 why police raided the flat, Police Inspector Alisher Umarov claimed they were "allowed" to do passport control "anywhere and anytime."

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.

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