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14 January 2014

KAZAKHSTAN: 48-hour jail terms for refusing to pay "unjust" fines

Two Baptists were imprisoned for 48 hours each in Kazakhstan's northern Akmola Region for refusing to pay fines handed down in 2013 to punish them for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. Vyacheslav Cherkasov and Zhasulan Alzhanov were freed in the evening of 11 January. Cherkasov was held with about ten other prisoners in one cell. Asked about conditions, he laughed grimly. "Not very good," he told Forum 18 News Service. More than 150 such administrative fines to punish individuals for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief are known to have been handed down in 2013. Anatoly Lazarenko, a 79-year-old Council of Churches Baptist from West Kazakhstan Region, became the second-oldest known victim when fined in November 2013. Officials chose to fine Yuri Rudenko on 25 December, the day his congregation celebrated Christmas. He was punished for leading a meeting for worship raided by police. "Police never raid our citizens," Nurdilda Oraz, head of the Interior Ministry press service, claimed to Forum 18.

8 January 2014

KAZAKHSTAN: "We have experts to check icons"

Twelve icons and three Bibles seized from a commercial bookseller in Oral (Uralsk) in West Kazakhstan Region in October 2013 have still not been returned. The bookseller is due to face an administrative court where he may be fined several weeks' average wages and the icons and Bibles might be ordered destroyed. "Everything is OK now – he has agreed not to sell religious materials," Salamat Zhumagulov, the state religious affairs official who seized the items, told Forum 18 News Service. Saktagan Sadvokasov, spokesperson for the government's Agency of Religious Affairs, also defended the seizure. "The Kazakh state must defend our citizens from harmful materials," he told Forum 18. Asked whether he has known icons which are harmful, he responded: "We have experts to check icons." A new draft procedure for acquiring the compulsory religious bookselling licence will require the owner of an applicant's rented business premises to certify that they are happy for religious items to be sold on their property.

6 January 2014

KAZAKHSTAN: Fines for "extremist" books

After raids on a Baptist church and a Christian centre in Kazakhstan's capital Astana in October 2012, a court in December 2013 fined two Protestants the equivalent of nearly four weeks' state-calculated average wage each for having "extremist" materials. Only one of seven confiscated items is known to have been banned as "extremist" through the courts. Protestants have repeatedly rejected to Forum 18 News Service accusations by state bodies that works confiscated from them are "extremist" and deserve to be banned. An Astana court is due to rule on 13 January whether a text by Salafi Muslim Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab is "extremist" and should be banned. Because court hearings to rule whether materials are "extremist" take place unannounced and because no published list of banned books appears to exist, people in Kazakhstan remain unaware of what has and has not been banned. "Extremism" bans are part of a harsh system of state-imposed religious censorship.

21 November 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: "They need permission from the local authorities"

Up to 16 police officers and journalists – led by the local religious affairs official – raided the meeting for Sunday worship on 10 November of Baptists in Oral (Uralsk) in West Kazakhstan Region. Ten of those present face possible fines of one or two months' average salary, for meeting for worship without state permission. One of the Baptists, Kenzhetai Baytinov, may have been removed from his job under state pressure. Elsewhere, imam Mukhammad Toleu of a mosque in Aktobe, which was denied state re-registration, has had his appeal against a fine for leading the community of one month's average salary rejected. He told a court that "no law bans praying five times a day", but he was found guilty. "They had no registration and no permission to meet", Prosecutor's Assistant Talap Usnadin insisted to Forum 18 News Service. Asked why, he insisted that "they need permission from the local authorities". And in a village near Aktobe, a Muslim who turned his home into a mosque with an unapproved minaret has been fined.

15 November 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Censorship "is not censorship", tightened censorship planned

Kazakhstan's Religion Law does not define what religious literature and objects are, but still imposes censorship on them. There is confusion among officials about what is censored, what is involved and what if anything is exempt. Galym Shoikin of the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) insisted to Forum 18 News Service that unless a book or object is banned by a court, it is legal. But legal books or objects cannot be distributed without ARA censorship. When Forum 18 noted that this is censorship, he claimed that: "This is not censorship – it is defending the interests of our country". He was unable to state a legal basis for some official actions, for example stating in relation to a claim that some (but not all) undefined "holy books" are exempt from censorship that "such issues are not put in law". But a new Criminal Implementation Code, a draft Law amending other laws "on questions of countering religious extremism and terrorism", and draft changes to the Religion Law will all further tighten censorship if adopted. Other changes considered include making religious communities pay for the state's imposition of censorship which breaks its human rights obligations.

11 November 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: At least 153 fines in 2013 – and counting

Many people have been fined in 2013 in Kazakhstan for the "offence" of exercising freedom of religion or belief without state permission. So far in 2013, at least 153 administrative fines have been imposed on 126 named individuals, some of whom have been fined up to five times, according to a list compiled by Forum 18 News Service. Fines have mostly been equivalent to either one or two months' average salary. Such fines, including fines for refusal to pay such unjust penalties, have been imposed on Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishna devotees and Muslims. In addition, twelve fines were imposed on commercial booksellers and other traders. If people refuse to pay such fines – imposed against Kazakhstan's international human rights obligations - they can also be banned from leaving the country. The list of documented fines is incomplete as state authorities refuse to make information public. Fines for the "offence" of exercising a human right without state permission are still being imposed.

4 November 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: "He was told not to sell religious literature"

The religious affairs official in Kazakhstan's capital Astana who initiated a case against local businessman Pyotr Volkov - which led to a fine for selling religious literature without a state licence – has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that: "He was told not to sell religious literature." But Adiya Romanova denied that this is state censorship. Volkov has tried to gain a state licence, and is appealing against both the fine and the failure to process his licence application. Nine of the fourteen fines known to Forum 18 to have been imposed in 2013 on book sellers are of about two months' average salary. In May, four books confiscated from a bookseller in East Kazakhstan Region – including two with prayers to Russian Orthodox saints Serafim of Sarov and Sergius of Radonezh – were ordered destroyed when the bookseller was fined. If it was carried out, this would be the first known time that a court-ordered religious book destruction has been carried out in Kazakhstan.

30 October 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Baptist faces one year in jail, Hare Krishna community ordered halted for three months

Because Pavel Leonov refused to pay a fine equivalent to about two months' average salary, for leading a religious community without state permission in East Kazakhstan, the Baptist Pastor was jailed for 24 hours, Forum 18 News Service notes. As he still refuses to pay, police on 28 October opened a criminal case against him. He now faces a possible maximum punishment of one year's imprisonment. Pastor Leonov is one of more than 100 people (one of them aged 86) known to have been fined in 2013 for, among other "offences": leading or participating in religious meetings without state permission; sharing their faith with others without being personally registered as "missionaries"; or distributing religious literature away from state-licensed venues. Fines are typically one or two months' average salary, the most recent known fines having been imposed on Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishna devotees. Also, the activity of Kostanai's Hare Krishna community was ordered to be stopped for three months. This was subsequently overturned on appeal. A Prosecutor's Office official told Forum 18: "It's not the Soviet system. This is the Kazakh system."

9 October 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Pastor re-arrested within minutes as suspected "extremist"

Presbyterian Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev's son Askar describes as "complete rubbish" the new criminal case against the retired pastor on charges of extremism, which carry a maximum seven-year prison term. "They're trying to turn my father into a terrorist," he complained to Forum 18 News Service. 66-year-old Kashkumbayev was arrested minutes after he was freed from prison in Astana after five months' pre-trial detention on separate criminal charges of harming a church member's health. Police investigator Captain Vyacheslav Glazkov, the Anti-Extremism Police (which is overseeing the case), the KNB secret police and the city Prosecutor's Office all refused to comment. The prison chief where Kashkumbayev is being held dismissed concerns over his health. "People don't die here in my prison," he told Forum 18.

7 October 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Pastor to be transferred from prison to house arrest

After nearly five months' imprisonment, a court in Kazakhstan's capital Astana has extended pre-trial detention for 66-year-old Presbyterian Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev until 17 November, but changed the terms from prison to house arrest, according to the court decision seen by Forum 18 News Service. He is expected to be freed from prison tomorrow (8 October). Kashkumbayev will be "banned from associating with anyone apart from close relatives living with him, receiving and sending letters, holding conversations with the use of any communications devices," and will be able to leave his home only for medical appointments. Meanwhile, the criminal investigation of atheist Aleksandr Kharlamov – freed in September after nearly six months' detention – continues. He told Forum 18 he is grateful that doctors who conducted a month-long court-ordered psychiatric assessment were "very correct". One doctor told him after reading his file that they knew he was there "not because you're bad but because you are an inconvenient person for the authorities".

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