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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.

10 June 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Restrictive draft Religion Law to reach full parliament tomorrow

Despite recent changes to Kazakhstan's draft Religion Law, the text still contains many violations of international human rights commitments, Forum 18 News Service has found. It is due to be presented to parliament for its first reading tomorrow (11 June) by the parliamentary Working Group, "They put many distracting points in the draft to take away our attention from the real pitfalls," Aleksandr Klyushev of the Association of Religious Organisations complained to Forum 18. "We need to do everything in our power to stop this Law from being adopted." Penalties for unregistered religious activity will be stepped up, and 50 adult citizen members will be required to register local religious communities. Local religious groups will not have the right to engage in educational, publishing or missionary activity. Kamal Burkhanov, who leads the Working Group, defended the restrictions on sharing one's faith in public. "Do people go to the toilet on a bus?" he told Forum 18. "No, they go to a toilet. Therefore whoever needs to meet their religious needs should go to a synagogue, mosque or a church." He showed no sympathy for those – like Baptists – who are often fined for unregistered religious activity. "They should not violate the law." Burkhanov said the OSCE's review of the draft Law has not yet been received, but he claimed that any criticism of any provisions would be taken into account.

4 June 2008

UZBEKISTAN: "Even in Kazakhstan the Uzbek authorities will not let him live in peace"

The Criminal Police in the Uzbek town of Nukus have again tried to have Protestant Christian, Makset Djabbarbergenov, brought back home for trial, where he could face up to three years' imprisonment for his peaceful religious activity. Despite being recognised by the UNHCR as a refugee in neighbouring Kazakhstan, he was seized by the Kazakh KNB secret police on 29 May after a detention request from Uzbekistan claimed he is an Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist, a Protestant told Forum 18 News Service. Djabbarbergenov was freed two days later after the UNHCR office in Almaty intervened, the office confirmed to Forum 18. Nukus Criminal Police refused to tell Forum 18 why they gave false information to the Kazakh authorities to try to get Djabbarbergenov returned. The Uzbek Interior Ministry also refused to discuss his case. "Makset is not afraid for himself but is more concerned for his family's security," the Protestant noted.

30 May 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: When is a raid not a raid?

Kazakh police claim that a raid on a church's worship service last Sunday (25 May) was not a raid. "It was not a raid, but we have to check up to see that they were abiding by the law," the Head of Aktobe police's Department for the Struggle with Extremism, Separatism and Terrorism told Forum 18 News Service. New Life Church's pastor, Zholaman Nurmanov, stated that 60 people were worshipping when the police arrived. They tried to halt the service and filmed it without permission. After the service police questioned the congregation, focusing on the presence of the pastor of another congregation. Police told Forum 18 that the congregation "was violating the law by inviting a missionary to speak without permission from the Internal Policy Department of the local administration and holding meetings at a different place from where they are legally registered." Police denied that they had violated the rights of people to meet freely for worship. "It is the law of Kazakhstan. We'll check up on them next Sunday and if necessary will bring them to court." The raid is the latest in a pattern of raids, tightened state control and prosecutions of religious communities throughout Kazakhstan.

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