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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.

22 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Three Protestants await trial, but one freed

Two Protestant Christians in the north-west of Uzbekistan – where all Protestant activity is illegal – are facing criminal charges for their religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The two - 26-year-old Makset Djabbarbergenov and 32-year-old Salavat Serikbayev – each face up to five years' imprisonment if convicted. The Prosecutor's Office have repeatedly evaded any discussion of the cases with Forum 18. Elsewhere in Uzbekistan, Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov – arrested by the NSS secret police on 21 January – also awaits trial, with no date yet set. He is being held in prison. However, visiting Kazakh Protestant pastor Rishat Garifulin has been freed without charge, after being held by the NSS secret police for eleven days. But police in the south-west who raided a private home have detained six Protestants, as well as confiscating a Bible, two audiocassettes and three Christian books in Kazakh. Such confiscated literature - including the Bible - has often been burnt.

16 February 2007

TURKMENISTAN: Family concerned over imprisoned former Chief Mufti

Increasingly concerned about the fate of the imprisoned former Chief Mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah is his extended family, who live in the northern region around Dashoguz [Dashhowuz], Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "We have never once been allowed a meeting, never once have they accepted parcels for him and we don't even know where he is being held," one relative complained. No verified information on the whereabouts or state of health of the 59-year-old Nasrullah has been received since he was sentenced to 22 years' imprisonment at a closed trial in Ashgabad in March 2004. Relatives say rumours he was freed at the time of last October's prisoner amnesty are not true. No officials have been prepared to discuss Nasrullah's case with Forum 18. Forum 18 knows of no other individuals currently imprisoned for their religious activity.

16 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: How many forced closures of religious communities?

Uzbekistan tries hard to camouflage its religious freedom violations and one way it does this is through statistics. Comparing February 2007 figures from the state Religious Affairs Committee with October 2002 figures, Forum 18 News Service notes that a net total of six Christian churches are indicated to have lost registration, along with one Jehovah's Witness, one Hare Krishna and one Baha'i community. The figures cannot be independently verified and conceal denominational differences, with an increase in Russian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic communities disguising loss of legal status of Protestant churches. Religious believers inside Uzbekistan indicate that the reality may be much worse. Some Protestant churches have recently calculated that 38 of their congregations were closed down by the state between 2000 and 2006. Over 100 religious communities of various faiths are thought to have tried unsuccessfully to gain registration. The Religious Affairs Committee asserts that "there there are no restrictions on or hindrances to registration." Without state registration, all religious activity is illegal and religious believers are subjected to harsh state action.

15 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Government closes another Jehovah's Witness congregation

Jehovah's Witnesses are deciding whether or not to appeal against a decision to strip legal status from their congregation in Fergana, eastern Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The government's decision means that all Jehovah's Witness activity in the city is now illegal and subject to harsh penalties. All but one of the more than 30 Jehovah's Witness communities in Uzbekistan have been persistently refused legal status. An Uzbek-based lawyer told Forum 18 that the Jehovah's Witnesses have virtually no chance of successfully appealing, as the regional Justice Department simply carries out instructions from the Uzbek government. An official in the Parliamentary Ombudsperson's Office, Maruf Usmanov, told Forum 18 that "It is your personal opinion that any registered or unregistered religious communities are being persecuted. We've had not one single complaint from religious believers." But this claim is contradicted by a letter Forum 18 has seen from the Ombudsperson, Sayora Rashidova, in response to complaints about the criminal case launched in 2006 against Pentecostal pastor Dmitry Shestakov, who is now awaiting trial.

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