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29 April 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Is a four-year sentence for religious activity too harsh?

Jehovah's Witness Olim Turaev has begun a four-year labour camp sentence imposed in Samarkand on 25 April to punish him for holding an unapproved religious meeting and teaching religion without state permission, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. His appeal is pending. The 34-year-old medical doctor, who is married with three children, is the third Jehovah's Witness currently serving a criminal sentence for his peaceful religious activity. Bakhrom Abdukhalilov, advisor to President Islam Karimov on ethnic minorities and religion, showed no concern for Turaev, insisting that Jehovah's Witnesses should not violate the law. He refused to say if he thought the four-year sentence was too harsh. Jehovah's Witnesses in Samarkand and elsewhere have been repeatedly denied the state registration the authorities insist is necessary before a religious community can conduct any religious activity. April also saw Full Gospel and Baptist church members fined in various cities, with one church leader handed a three-day administrative arrest.

11 April 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Chief Rabbi faces expulsion

After days of allegations in the state-run media and a check-up by Justice Ministry and Religious Affairs Committee officials, the Justice Ministry wrote to Uzbekistan's Chief Rabbi Abe David Gurevich on 10 April refusing his and a colleague's application for renewal of accreditation. Neither Forum 18 News Service nor the Chief Rabbi have been able to reach the Justice Ministry official who signed the letter, Jalol Abdusattarov, to find out why the decision was taken. "Each time I call the Ministry someone picks up the phone and says he is not there," Gurevich told Forum 18. The community is now concerned that their Chief Rabbi might be forced to leave Uzbekistan. Gurevich pointed out to Forum 18 that the same thing happened to him in 1998, but the decision was later revoked and he received an apology. The Justice Ministry has also threatened to revoke the legal status of the local branch of the Jewish charity, the Joint Distribution Committee.

10 April 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Asking about religious freedom violations is "stupid"

Seven days after charismatic Christian Bobur Aslamov was detained during a raid on a religious meeting in Samarkand, his whereabouts remain unknown, one Protestant told Forum 18 News Service on 10 April. Church members fear he could face criminal charges. Police beat some church members during the raid. Police, secret police and Justice Department officials raided a Full Gospel congregation in Tashkent on 9 April, just before the Justice Department was due to rule on the congregation's long-stalled registration application. Five church members face administrative penalties. Amid renewed media attacks on religious communities, Baptists objected to regional television coverage of a police raid in March. "This programme aimed to stir up society against church members," they told Forum 18. "And all this is being done in defiance of the law." Begzot Kadyrov of the government's Religious Affairs Committee refused to discuss this and other recent harassment of religious communities. "Don't disturb us with stupid questions about religious liberties," he told Forum 18.

9 April 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Eight years' imprisonment for "illegal" religious activity?

Following a harsh crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses in Samarkand in February - which saw raids, beatings and a sexual assault - criminal charges have now been launched against 34-year-old Olim Turaev, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. He has been accused of organising an "illegal" religious community (the Samarkand Jehovah's Witnesses have no legal status) and "illegal" religious education. He faces up to eight years' imprisonment if convicted. Prosecutors refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. Eleven other Jehovah's Witnesses were fined, one of whom, Akmaral Rahmanberdiyeva, spent 12 days in custody. Meanwhile, two imams of a mosque in Namangan have been sacked for "illegally" teaching religion to teenagers. Other imams were warned over the same "offence" and the regional head of the Muslim Board was sacked.

17 March 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Physical assaults by police on Jehovah's Witnesses

Uzbek police have threatened and physically assaulted members of the Jehovah's Witness religious minority, following raids on homes in Samarkand, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In once case, a young female Jehovah's Witness was taken to a police station, stripped and touched inappropriately by an apparently drunk police officer, Akmal Tilyavov. Asked by Forum 18 why he needed to question her alone and search her, he responded: "I cannot give you any information on that since we are a closed organisation." Asked directly whether he had touched her inappropriately, Tilyavov's tone of voice changed in apparent embarrassment. He refused to answer directly. "Why don't you talk to the Chief of the Division," he eventually said. Jehovah's Witnesses complain that no warrants were provided to justify the raids, nor was legal protocol adhered to. Various personal belongings disappeared from the homes searched. The raids were a week after a Jehovah's Witness student was expelled from a Samarkand school.

12 March 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Punishments and church closure

Uzbekistan continues to attack peaceful religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A Baptist in the eastern city of Fergana, Eduard Kim, was fined the equivalent of nine months average wages, after a raid by ten state officials on his house where about 40 local Baptists were meeting for Sunday morning worship. A Pentecostal pastor near the capital Tashkent, Kamal Musakhanov, has been fined over two months average wages for "violating the rules on teaching religious doctrines." His congregation is affiliated to a registered Pentecostal church. Jehovah's Witnesses in the central city of Samarkand were raided and some of their members were severely assaulted by police. And Grace Presbyterian Church in Tashkent has been forced to halt all its activities. Asked why the church was stripped of legal status and property, an official told Forum 18 that "they violated the laws on religious propaganda and not everything was in order with the auction whereby they had purchased their building."

18 January 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Fresh eviction threat and more media intolerance incitement

Uzbekistan has dropped criminal charges against members of Grace Church, after the authorities' claim that a cough medicine was psychotropic (mind-altering) were proved to be false. However, church members have told Forum 18 News Service that they face fresh official threats to evict them from their church building. The latest threats have caused fears that "[Protestant] churches' right to property will be reviewed," Forum 18 was told. A major state-run newspaper, "Narodnoe Slovo", has resumed the authorities' periodic campaigns to incite intolerance, by reprinting articles on Grace Church. Amongst false accusations are that it is "hypnotising" people, that "when false preachers run out of words and dollars to attract credulous parishioners (..) they turn to psychotropic substances," and that "greedy pastors tried to stupefy the minds of our children." An article ended "giving a decisive 'No' to the creeping aggression of an alien influence is our and your civil duty!" Previous state intolerance campaigns have coincided with increased suppression of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Challenged by Forum 18 on why the government newspaper is inciting intolerance, Salam Daniyarov, assistant Editor-in-Chief, claimed "we have freedom of speech" and put the phone down.

16 January 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Four religious minority members still serving criminal sentences

Only two of the six members of religious minorities, serving sentences under the Criminal Code for peaceful religious activity, have been freed in the wake of December's prisoner amnesty, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Pentecostal Pastor Dmitry Shestakov is still serving a four-year labour camp sentence, Jehovah's Witness Irfon Khamidov is still serving a two-year prison sentence, and another Jehovah's Witness, Dilafruz Arziyeva, is still serving a two-year corrective labour sentence, where 20 per cent of her wages are deducted and handed to the state. Protestant Sharofat Allamova is serving a six-month suspended sentence, but was not eligible for amnesty as she was imprisoned on criminal charges before she became a Christian. The failure to free Arziyeva from her sentence is surprising, as the amnesty applies to almost all women serving sentences. Khamidov's situation is getting worse, as "he has had a number of visitors in the prison, which is not to the liking of the prison authorities," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18, so "they fabricated some charges against him." The amnesty was proclaimed to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the adoption of Uzbekistan's Constitution.

9 January 2008

UZBEKISTAN: Death threats and massive fines follow registration application

Two years after applying for legal status, Jehovah's Witnesses in the Uzbek town of Kagan have still not gained state registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Instead they have faced harassment, a police raid and the ten community members were threatened with death and each given fines of five years' minimum wages. Bailiffs have made repeated visits to seize property to pay the fines. Unregistered religious activity is a criminal offence in Uzbekistan, in violation of the country's international human rights commitments. When Forum 18 asked the town Hokim (administration chief), Murot Hudoyorov, why the community had been treated in this way, he stated while laughing that "You're wrong" and then put the phone down. Jehovah's Witnesses, Protestants and Muslims continue to suffer from the state's repression of religious freedom. Even registered communities - such as Baptists in Jizak - are targeted by the authorities.

19 December 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Haj pilgrims still strictly controlled and restricted

5,000 people from Uzbekistan have travelled to Mecca for this year's haj pilgrimage, but Forum 18 News Service notes that the number of pilgrims allowed to travel from Uzbekistan is significantly less than from other countries with a similar Muslim population. Uzbekistan has a record of restricting the numbers of pilgrims and strictly controlling their selection. All pilgrims need approval from local authorities, the NSS secret police and the Haj Commission, which is controlled by the state Religious Affairs Committee and state-controlled Spiritual Administration of Muslims (the Muftiate). Also, all pilgrimages can only be made using the state-run airline, Uzbekistan Airways. The amount demanded by the state for the pilgrimage is about 200 times the minimum monthly wage." Not everyone can go. The blacklist of those who can't go includes everyone the government regards as suspicious," opposition activist Vasila Inoyatova told Forum 18.

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