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10 October 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: "Only the President can stop the demolition"

The remaining parts of Kazakhstan's only Hare Krishna commune are threatened by a court case due to begin on Monday 13 October, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Karasai Akimat (administration) has brought a case to seize the buildings on the commune – which include a temple – and demolish them. Aysara Uglanova of Karasai District Court stated that "the case is about whether or not to demolish the buildings on the farm." Told that one of the buildings is the only Hare Krishna temple in Kazakhstan, Uglanova responded: "Now only the President of the country could stop the process of demolition. Let them write to the President," she advised. Maksim Varfolomeev of the Hare Krishna community stressed to Forum 18 that the temple is the valid registered legal address for the religious community, and fears that the community could be stripped of state registration if the address is demolished. Kazakh officials often insist - wrongly - that unregistered religious activity is banned in the country. A court case against a Baptist, Andrei Blok, for unregistered activity has been postponed.

6 October 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Months in prison for leading unregistered worship?

If convicted at his trial due on 9 October in the northern town of Esil, Baptist pastor Andrei Blok could face up to four months' imprisonment. He is being tried for refusing to pay an earlier fine for leading his unregistered church, part of what local Council of Churches Baptists describe as the authorities' "economic war" against them. Local Baptists told Forum 18 News Service Blok considered the fine "unfounded and illegal". The town police chief admitted to Forum 18 Blok is being prosecuted because of his unregistered religious activity. In mid-September another Baptist pastor Aleksandr Kerker was given his second massive fine for leading unregistered worship, amid moves to seize his land and two cows for failure to pay his first fine. "The Baptists still go on holding their meetings - no one is really pressuring them," the judge who rejected Kerker's appeal told Forum 18. In the southern city of Shymkent, officials raided the Protestant New Life church's Sunday morning worship service. Like other religious leaders the pastor was forced to fill out an intrusive questionnaire asking about the ethnic composition of his community. One official accused the pastor of "corrupting Kazakh nationals to change their religion".

3 October 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: How simple is it to gain legal status?

Atyrau's Jehovah's Witnesses first applied for registration in 2001. Their 2007 application was rejected because they failed to supply work telephone numbers for some of the founders. Their December 2007 application was rejected in August 2008 despite successfully passing two "expert assessments" at the Religious Affairs Committee in the capital, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. The Justice Department rejected it because one of the 20 founders (twice the required legal minimum) could not provide an uptodate identity document. "Tens" of Protestant churches have been denied registration in recent years. Kuanysh Sultanov, head of the Kazakh government delegation to an OSCE human rights conference, boasted of a "simplified mechanism" for registering religious organisations. Yet Lyudmila Danilenko, head of the registration department at the Religious Affairs Committee, told Forum 18: "There have been no changes to the registration procedures over the past year." She claimed they were already "simple", even though for the past year any religious community applying for registration must undergo an "expert assessment" by her Committee.

29 September 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: What restrictive legal changes will pass Senate "within days"?

Kazakhstan's controversial new restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and belief have passed the lower house of parliament, the Majilis, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "The Senate will consider the Law within days, then it will go to the President," Kayrat Tulesov, Deputy Head of the state Religious Affairs Committee told Forum 18. "We're trying to have this law adopted in its current form." He brushed aside the many strong criticisms from human rights defenders and religious organisations of the draft Law, which amends the Religion Law, the Administrative Code, and other laws. Kamal Burkhanov, who leads the Majilis Working Group preparing the text of the Law, is finalising the text. He refused to make it public, telling Forum 18: "We cannot provide you with a copy of the text - it is our law after all, and it should be none of your concern." Kazakh human rights defenders, such as Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, strongly criticise the lack of openness and delay in releasing the text. She pointed out to Forum 18 that "clarifications" can still be introduced into the draft before it is sent to the Senate. A senior official has allegedly suggested that the authorities plan to "very delicately, very exactly, in a very coordinated way and without noise" close some religious organisations.

11 September 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: "Economic war" against believers continues

Baptists who do not wish to receive state registration continue to be punished for meeting for worship without legal status, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Three local administration officials and a police officer raided the Sunday worship service of a small congregation in Ayagoz in East Kazakhstan Region in July. Church member Pavel Leonov was later fined 100 times the minimum monthly wage after refusing to register the congregation. On 3 September the Regional Court rejected his appeal, court officials told Forum 18. In Pavlodar Region, Oleg Voropaev was fined ten months' minimum wages for leading his Baptist congregation. "The state's compulsion of the community to register violates the rights to freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed by the Constitution," Voropaev told the court. Both Leonov and Voropaev have been fined in earlier years for their peaceful religious activity. Baptists have described the state's actions against them as an "economic war". As well as the Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses have been raided, banned and given large fines in July and August.

9 September 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Mass raids, fines and bans in South Kazakhstan Region

A mass campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses in South Kazakhstan Region was unleashed on 27 July, with raids by police, Anti-Terrorist police, the KNB secret police and other officials on nine congregations. Court documents seen by Forum 18 News Service show that two of the three that had state registration have been closed down and leaders fined for holding religious meetings outside registered religious premises. One private home has been confiscated. "The South Kazakhstan regional authorities organised a massive campaign against our communities with the purpose of putting an end to their activity," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Yuri Toporov complained to Forum 18. Prosecutors refused to discuss the cases with Forum 18. "It is absolute nonsense to demand religious organisations to hold meetings only in one building where they are registered," human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis told Forum 18. Baptists and others have similarly been fined.

20 August 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Nationwide religious property seizures continue

Almaty regional Public Prosecutor's Office seems keen to seize property from religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Six property cases against Christian and Muslim religious organisations in the region are known to have been initiated since mid-June. Amongst them is Agafe Protestant Church, the regional Economic Court ruling – despite numerous violations of due process – that the Church's building and land should be confiscated. A defence lawyer has received anonymous death threats, and an appeal will take place on 27 August. The regions' Hare Krishna commune also continues to struggle to retain its property. Similar attempts to seize religious property continue elsewhere in Kazakhstan. Near the north-western town of Alga, New Life Protestant Church has been evicted from its building. Grace Protestant Church in Semey, eastern Kazakhstan, has been forced to brick up windows, as the Fire Brigade insists on this "in case there is a fire in the neighbouring property." The Church has also been prohibited from using its own building.

3 July 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: "They are trying to close down our church with any excuse"

Kazakhstan continues to try to close places of worship, Forum 18 News Service has found. The latest incident is a court case brought against Grace Protestant Church in Semey, in eastern Kazakhstan. The Fire Brigade claim that their newly constructed place of worship does not meet fire safety requirements, stating that there must be a six meter gap between their building and the next building. However, a church member told Forum 18, "there is no building on that land, it is an empty plot." Church members and their lawyer insist that all relevant building permits, including those from the Fire Brigade, are in order. But "the court ignored these documents." A church member told Forum 18 that "it looks like they are trying to close down our church with any excuse." The state's long-running attempts to intimidate Almaty's Hare Krishna commune also continue. In a separate case, a Soviet-era prisoner of conscience, Yegor Prokopenko, pastor of an unregistered Baptist church, has been fined for a second time in three years for unregistered religious activity. Local prosecutor Tatyana Semynina told Forum 18 that "they can believe as much as they want, but should not organize religious meetings."

27 June 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Protestant in detention facing criminal charges, Baptists jailed for 10 days

A Protestant from north-west Uzbekistan, Aimurat Khayburahmanov, was arrested on 14 June and is still in detention before facing criminal trial on terrorism charges, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Uzbek police have also recently falsely accused a Protestant refugee in Kazakhstan of terrorism charges. Amongst other recent violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief, four Baptists in Tashkent Region - Natalya Ogai, Filipp Kim, Dmitri Kim and Nurlan Tolebaev – have been fined and sentenced to ten days' imprisonment, because of their peaceful religious activity. Fines continue to be imposed on other Protestants. However, in a highly unusual move, a court in the capital Tashkent found that charges against a Protestant had been fabricated and ordered police to be punished for this. But members of Tashkent's Hare Krishna community have been banned from taking part in a music and environment festival.

25 June 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Protestants reject government's religious hatred encouragement

Leaders of 26 Protestant congregations across Uzbekistan have published an open letter rejecting state-controlled TV stations' repeated broadcasts of a film encouraging intolerance and hatred of religious minorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Protestant leaders also condemn "garbled facts, aggressive attacks, lies and slander" against named individuals and churches by the state TV broadcasts, and accuse the state and those who took part in the film of violating Uzbek criminal law through the broadcast. The leaders also complain that the state-controlled leaderships of schools and colleges strongly encouraged students to watch the film and so encouraged religious hatred and intolerance amongst young people. State-run newspapers and websites carried linked articles attacking religious minorities and their sharing of their beliefs, one such article stating that religious minorities "have one aim: to infringe on human freedom with all the consequences that flow from it." Officials Forum 18 has spoken to now either say they know nothing of the protest, or refuse to discuss the film. But one participant defended it.

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