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21 May 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Government issues orders to religious communities

A three-page document from a regional state administration in Uzbekistan, seen by Forum 18 News Service, reveals the extent to which state officials expect religious communities to obey them. Amongst other directives, a Protestant pastor is ordered to draw up a plan with the state Religious Affairs Committee "to prevent missionary activity." Regional representatives of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims and of the state Religious Affairs Committee are ordered "to bring under constant close observation all officially registered religious organisations" and "to strengthen the struggle with people conducting illegal religious education and organising small religious gatherings." Officials have refused to discuss with Forum 18 why, although religion and state are formally separate, officials issue orders to religious communities. Echoing Soviet times, officials see no reason not to interfere in the internal life of religious communities, and expect that their orders will be obeyed.

10 May 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Protestant sentenced for "violating the procedure for teaching religion"

Following the jailing for four years of Protestant Pastor Dmitry Shestakov, Pentecostal Christian Salavat Serikbayev was today (10 May) in Uzbekistan given a two-year suspended jail sentence for teaching religion illegally, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Serikbayev has now been allowed home, but he could be jailed if he commits any further "crime," such as any religious activity the authorities do not like. He was also banned from travelling abroad and the court ordered that 20 per cent of any salary he earns be taken from him. Serikbayev does not have a job, and lives in a town with about 80 per cent unemployment. Last month, another Protestant was given a fine totalling more than most people in his home city earn in a year. Police continue to target Protestants, recently detaining six Christian women and one man who were celebrating a birthday in a private home. All seven people were handcuffed and detained overnight, Forum 18 has learnt, some being beaten up by police.

3 May 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Was imprisoned pastor forced to renounce appeal?

Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov is claimed by officials in Uzbekistan to have "voluntarily" renounced his right to an appeal and, because of poor health, begged to be transferred immediately to his place of punishment. Friends of the pastor, who has been sentenced to four years in a work camp, have told Forum 18 News Service that they are very concerned about this claim, as well as the unexplained cause of his poor health. Pastor Shestakov had appealed against his sentence, and officials have not explained why he has suddenly withdrawn the appeal, or why it was not heard within one month of the sentence as Uzbek law requires. Shestakov himself had complained about this delay to the Regional Court and the Prosecutor's Office. Meanwhile, the verdict in the trial of Protestant Salavat Serikbayev for "violating the procedure for teaching religion" is expected. Protestants have also complained to Forum 18 about continuing attacks in the state-run press, such as an article stating that missionaries are turning people into zombies and implying that sharing beliefs is "religious violence."

23 April 2007

TURKMENISTAN: May trial for imprisoned Baptist leader?

The criminal trial of imprisoned Baptist leader Vyacheslav Kalataevsky may begin very soon, his wife has told Forum 18 News Service. "The court will not tell me officially when the trial is due to start, but we have indications it could be on 2 or 4 May," Valentina Kalataevskaya told Forum 18. Kalataevsky was arrested at his home by the MSS secret police on charges of illegally crossing the border. His wife is convinced that "although officials don't mention it, I believe there is a religious motivation to the case." In 2001 he was expelled from Turkmenistan, where he was born and lives, during a campaign of expulsions of foreign passport holders engaged in religious activity. Since Kalataevsky's arrest on 12 March, his wife has been denied access to him. There has also been no progress in the case of Merdan Shirmedov, a Protestant denied permission to leave Turkmenistan to join his pregnant wife in the USA. Officials have refused to discuss these cases, and the case of the imprisoned former Chief Mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, with Forum 18.

20 April 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Protestants face prosecution, fines, raids, kidnapping and death threats

Following a January raid on a private home in Nukus in north-western Uzbekistan where 18 Protestants had gathered, one of those present, Salavat Serikbayev, faces criminal trial for teaching religion illegally, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. There is a three year maximum sentence if convicted and the hearing is set for 24 April. The host of the meeting, Grigory Ten, was fined more than many local people earn in a year on 9 April, and his hymnbook was ordered to be confiscated. In the eastern city of Andijan, three members of the embattled church led by Dmitry Shestakov – imprisoned on 9 March – are also facing possible prosecution. In Samarkand police swooped on an outdoor Protestant Easter service. Several prominent Protestants are facing death threats and the daughter of one pastor was traumatised after being kidnapped by unknown young men. However, the Jehovah's Witnesses report that five of their meetings to commemorate Jesus' death were raided this year, far fewer than in the past two years. An official of the state Religious Affairs Committee told Forum 18 that these reports are "false information".

10 April 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Russian religious news website blocked

One of the more prominent Russian-language religious news websites, Portal-credo.ru, is blocked in Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service has found. Tests in the Uzbek capital Tashkent showed that the religious news website was inaccessible. Blocking is done at the instigation of the National Security Service (NSS) secret police. Internet service providers (ISPs) in Uzbekistan blame the blocking of sites on Uznet, owned by the state provider Uzbektelecom and through which all ISPs have to connect to the internet. Uznet insists that sites are already blocked by the NSS. "We don't block websites – this is done by the NSS secret police. The NSS open the connections for us – they have all the equipment there," an Uznet employee told Forum 18. Uzbekistan has long barred access to more websites than any other Central Asian country, including websites such as Centrasia.ru, Ferghana.ru and Uznews.net. All these websites carry some coverage of religious affairs.

27 March 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Pastor's verdict documents extensive state controls

The written verdict on Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov, who has been sentenced to four years' imprisonment in an open work camp, gives a snapshot of how state control of Uzbekistan's religious communities operates. The verdict, seen by Forum 18 News Service, indicates how state agencies – hokimat (local administration), the mahalla (town district) committees, the police, public prosecutor's office, courts and expert witnesses - work together to control and suppress religious communities. In the case of Shestakov's Full Gospel congregation, the verdict also reveals official obsession over the ethnic affiliation and social background of those attending the church. One state agency not mentioned is the National Security Service (NSS) secret police, although it was heavily involved in the case from the start. The verdict especially highlights the key role of the committee of the mahalla, the urban district into which towns and cities are divided. Although ostensibly elected and self-governing, mahalla committees are in practice instruments of top-down control.

23 March 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Pastor's re-education "impossible without isolation from society"

Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov has appealed against the four-year sentence in one of Uzbekistan's open work camps imposed for his religious activity, Protestant sources have told Forum 18 News Service. The verdict stated that Pastor Shestakov had to be deprived of his freedom "given the absence of the possibility of re-educating him without isolation from society." No date has yet been set for an appeal hearing and Shestakov remains in Prison No. 1 in Andijan until the hearing. He has been banned from kneeling to pray and had his copy of the New Testament confiscated. He has been offered the Koran to read instead, Forum 18 has learnt. Although the state Religious Affairs Committee has frequently in state-run mass media attacked Pastor Shestakov and Protestants generally, Begzot Kadyrov of the Committee claimed to Forum 18 that "I have no information about the case." The verdict also claims it is "necessary" for 12 videotapes, seven CDs, two audiotapes and one copy of an Uzbek-language translation of a book "Jesus: More than a Prophet" to be destroyed. Two Protestants continue to await trial in north-west Uzbekistan.

9 March 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Internal exile for Protestant pastor

Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov has today (9 March) been sentenced to four years' exile in an open work camp within Uzbekistan for his religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Shestakov maintained his innocence throughout the trial. During his final speech, Forum 18 learnt, he told the court that despite the tears of his wife and children he forgives those who have taken action against him. Shestakov's friends have stated that there were numerous irregularities in the trial, including: an expert analysis of his sermons being illegally conducted by an Andijan University professor; forgery of documents by the Prosecutor's Office; false prosecution claims of religious services being conducted in a property not belonging to a registered religious organisation; and Pastor Shestakov being illegally charged under a Criminal Code article that was not in force when the criminal case against Shestakov was launched. Before the trial, Uzbek state-run media tried to smear Shestakov and his church.

28 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Imminent verdict for Protestant pastor

Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov is due to be sentenced tomorrow (1 March), despite trial proceedings today (28 February) breaking Uzbekistan's own law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Shestakov has been charged under three articles of the Criminal Code and faces a possible maximum sentence of up to 20 years in jail for his religious activity. Under Uzbek law, the trial proceedings should not have taken place today as Pastor Shestakov's own lawyer was ill. A lawyer appointed by the court reportedly did nothing to defend Shestakov. His friends have insisted to Forum 18 that an expert analysis of his sermons – recordings of which were confiscated during a search of his home – was illegal as it was conducted by a professor from Andijan University, not the state Religious Affairs Committee. There are also claims that the Prosecutor's Office forged documents to incriminate Shestakov.

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