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8 April 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Heavy sentences on Muslims "to discredit Islam and believers"?

Fourteen of fifteen Muslims arrested in April 2007 were given prison sentences in February of between 14 and 19 and a half years at a closed trial in the southern city of Shymkent, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The fifteenth received a three-year corrective labour sentence. Human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis told Forum 18 that the KNB secret police claim that the group was preparing to blow up its office in Shymkent was not proven. Relatives of the men complained to Forum 18 that the KNB had planted evidence and that the trial was unfair. But Judge Shara Biysimbaeva – who led the trial – rejected this to Forum 18. KNB and Prosecutor's Office officials involved in the case refused to discuss it with Forum 18. "This has been done to discredit Islam and believers," one relative told Forum 18. Zhovtis said he believes this was a show trial to scare other Muslims who may try to be independent in their theology and practice from the state-backed version of Islam.

28 March 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Large fines as official tells Baptists not to appeal to UN or OSCE

Two Baptists have been given large fines for peaceful religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pyotr Panafidin and Ivan Friesen were each fined 116,800 Tenge (4,900 Norwegian Kroner, 600 Euros, or 970 US Dollars) in separate cases. Elsewhere, another Baptist, Dmitry Jantsen, was warned by officials that his congregation and several others would be closed down and that he would be jailed. One official, Serik Tlekbaev of the Justice Department, told Jantsen "not to try to appeal to international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), because they will not be of any help to you," Jantsen told Forum 18. Tlekbaev also stated that "Kazakhstan will be Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE in 2010, and it will then be of no use to you to talk to the OSCE." Tlekbaev has denied to Forum 18 that he made these statements. Officials have also again threatened to demolish a Hare Krishna temple near Almaty.

25 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Are intrusive questionnaires "a simple formality"?

Kazakhstan has increased demands that religious communities and leaders complete highly intrusive questionnaires covering an extremely wide range of personal, political, religious and other matters, including who the close friends of leaders are, Forum 18 News Service notes. The questionnaires are presented by a number of official bodies, and it is not clear who drew them up. They appear to originate in the Justice Ministry, possibly working with the KNB secret police. Officials have variously claimed to Forum 18 that the questionnaires are "a simple formality which the religious communities need to do every now and then," or are for "a database on religious organisations." The questionnaires have raised concern in some religious communities, while others regard them as nothing serious and feel obliged to complete the questionnaires. Human rights activists have expressed concern about the questionnaires, and note that religious communities have no legal obligation to complete them as official demands to provide intrusive information violate the Kazakh Constitution.

25 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Increased pressure to complete intrusive questionnaires

For some years, Kazakhstan has been demanding that non-Muslim religious communities complete highly intrusive questionnaires, Forum 18 News Service has noted. However, there has recently been an apparent increase in both the numbers of communities asked to complete the questionnaires and the pressure officials exert to get the questionnaires completed. The questionnaires, which come in two basic forms, contain very similar questions. Amongst the numerous highly intrusive questions are: the ethnicity of congregation members, their profession, political preferences, "the most influential and authoritative people in the community," foreign missionaries, media contacts, "facts demanding attention on the part of state bodies," military service of congregation leaders, their foreign language knowledge, media articles written, and the full names of leaders' "close friends and comrades." A State Programme, stressing increased monitoring and supervision of religious communities, has recently been adopted. Some religious believers, who wish to remain anonymous, have told Forum 18 that the KNB secret police have increased efforts to recruit spies inside religious communities.

22 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: New wave of raids on Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses

Amid tightening state control on religious activity, Baptists who refuse to apply for state registration and Jehovah's Witnesses are facing increased state hostility, Forum 18 News Service has found. After about 200 ethnic Kazakh Jehovah's Witnesses gathered for a meeting, a varied group of officials, including the Sanitary-Epidemiological Service, arrived and closed the meeting hall for two days. They claimed that this was because of a bomb allegedly planted by an unnamed group or person. "We suspect the authorities are worried above all about ethnic Kazakhs becoming Jehovah's Witnesses," Forum 18 was told. "Events we hold in Russian do not arouse such hostility." As a series of raids take place on unregistered Baptist congregations, the state-controlled media is being used to promote intolerance of peaceful religious groups, one article describing the Baptists as "God-fearing lawbreakers" and their meetings for worship as "illegal meetings."

15 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Revival of state hostility to religious organisations fuels intrusive check-ups?

The KNB secret police, the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor's Office appear to have stepped up their intrusive check-ups on religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Fourteen Protestant churches and one Hare Krishna community have faced heavy-handed check-ups in January and February in the country's commercial capital Almaty alone. The Protestant Alpha and Omega Centre faced a two-day check which followed slanderous coverage of the Centre on television. "They checked sanitary-hygiene conditions, fire-prevention measures, and all the documents," the Centre's director Leonid Zavyanov told Forum 18. "What's the worry, it's just a check-up, and we have found nothing serious yet," the Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18. Although Muslims and the Russian Orthodox deny that their communities are being checked up, a Religious Affairs Committee official told Forum 18 that such check-ups have led to mosques being closed down and muftis sacked. Human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis sees the check-ups as part of a revival of state hostility to religious organisations.

5 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: How threatening are President Nazarbayev's comments?

Kazakh officials have played down to Forum 18 News Service the significance of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's recent call to "suppress the activity of illegal religious movements." He also claimed that "tens of thousands of different missionary organisations work in Kazakhstan. We don't know their purposes and intentions, and we should not allow such unchecked activity." Independent Kazakh observers are unsure how seriously to take the comments, but do not think that they are meant to start a campaign against religious communities. A state programme "On the provision of freedom of belief and enhancement of state-confessional relations" has been introduced by the Justice Minister because of "radical religious movements whose aim is total Islamisation or evangelisation." Recently, Protestant churches, a Hare Krishna commune, Jehovah's Witnesses and an independent mosque have faced threats to their property, cancellation of their registration and harassment of their members. Accusations of espionage and high treason have also been made.

30 January 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Secret police operation to close down entire denomination?

The KNB secret police subjected the Grace Presbyterian Church in Almaty to a 17-hour raid on 25 and 26 January. "They checked everybody and everything and confiscated all the computer hardware," Dmitri Kan of the church's headquarters in Karaganda told Forum 18 News Service. The raid is part of the campaign begun with a 15-hour raid in Karaganda last August. The Financial Police, Justice Department, and KNB have stepped up investigating and questioning Grace Church members across Kazakhstan since mid-January, he added. Leaks through the media allege that church members are engaged in spying, appropriating church members' property, failing to file financial information, inciting inter-religious enmity and holding illegal drugs, even though no-one has ever been brought before a criminal court. "All these efforts are done to close down the entire Grace Church in Kazakhstan," Kan told Forum 18. The Karaganda Regional Department of the KNB told Forum 18 that the operation against the Church is being led by the central KNB in the capital Astana. Vyacheslav Kalyuzhny, the Deputy Human Rights Ombudsperson, says the Church has not complained to his office. "People are not persecuted on religious grounds in Kazakhstan," he claimed.

12 December 2007

KAZAKHSTAN: "Ridiculous excuses" for denying legal status

Lack of work phone numbers for the founders of the Jehovah's Witness community in the Caspian Sea port of Atyrau on its registration application was enough for the regional Justice Department to deny legal status. Jehovah's Witness lawyer Yuri Toporov complained to Forum 18 News Service of "ridiculous excuses" in rejecting this and all the community's previous applications since 2001. Law professor Roman Podoprigora told Forum 18 that state bodies sometimes use "just any excuse", even an insignificant one, to reject religious communities' registration applications. Atyrau Region officials have denied legal status to at least two local Protestant churches, and this summer pressured an independent Muslim community to hand over its mosque to the state-backed Muftiate. Unregistered religious activity in Kazakhstan is illegal and punishable. Local Jehovah's Witnesses and Protestants have been fined for unregistered worship. Officials deny any restrictions. "Look, we don't have any problems related to religious freedom in our region," deputy regional head Kenes Kosybaev told Forum 18. "Just don't listen to those negative reports about us."

8 November 2007

TURKMENISTAN: Baptist freed, Jehovah's Witness threatened with new sentence

Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky has been freed after being amnestied from a three year labour camp sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "My wife Valentina wrote an official statement that I will not violate the law," he told Forum 18. "I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all who supported me and my family during my imprisonment." Asked about his health in the wake of his eight months in prison, Kalataevsky responded: "God strengthened me physically." Two Jehovah's Witnesses, who are serving suspended sentences have not been amnestied. Begench Shakhmuradov received a two year sentence in September 2007, and Bayram Ashirgeldyyev was given an 18 month sentence in July 2007. Ashirgeldyyev has been threatened with a new sentence, even though he is still serving his current suspended sentence. He has been barred from work unless he receives a stamp from the Military Commissariat, which refuses to give him this. Another Jehovah's Witness, Ashirgeldy Taganov, also faces prosecution for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.

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