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19 June 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Church closes because of official pressure

Complaining that it was "too dangerous" to continue to meet, the Resurrection Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in the Fergana Valley town of Andijan – long denied state registration - has decided to close down. "We have faced such pressure from the leaders of the local mahallas [urban districts] and from the prosecutor, especially this year," the church's pastor Bakhtier Tuichiev told Forum 18 News Service. "It is too painful to talk about all the threats and insults we have had to endure." Fined last December, Tuichiev says he is now constantly monitored by police and is among a growing number of active Protestants denied permission to leave Uzbekistan. Eight members of another Full Gospel congregation in Andijan have had their appeals against fines imposed in May turned down. Their pastor, Dmitry Shestakov, is serving a four-year labour camp sentence.

13 June 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Jehovah's Witness beaten, tried and sentenced to labour camp

Samarkand City Court sentenced Jehovah's Witness Irfon Khamidov on 14 May to two years in a labour camp on charges of "illegally" teaching his faith in a trial Jehovah's Witnesses say was marred by "procedural violations". "Two of the 'witnesses' summoned to testify against Khamidov actually acknowledged that they had never seen him before," Jehovah's Witnesses complained to Forum 18 News Service. They added that Khamidov was beaten in pre-trial detention. His appeal is due to be heard on 19 June. Officials declined to discuss his case with Forum 18, though a Samarkand Internal Affairs official claimed to Forum 18 (wrongly) that religious believers are able to meet for worship in private homes. In another of the criminal cases launched this year against Jehovah's Witnesses, Ramil Gareev has been found guilty in Karshi of "illegal" religious activity, but Russian news agency Interfax reports that he was immediately amnestied. Of the several dozen Jehovah's Witness communities in Uzbekistan, the government allows only one to operate legally.

12 June 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Imprisoned pastor transferred to harsher camp

After twice being punished in the isolation cell in his open work camp near Tashkent, imprisoned Pentecostal pastor Dmitry Shestakov is being transferred to a harsher labour camp to serve the rest of his punishment, Protestant sources have told Forum 18 News Service. "Cunning by nature, he does not keep his promises," the 25 May court verdict alleged. "He does not repent for the crime he has committed." Shestakov, who leads a church in Andijan in the Fergana Valley, is to be transferred to a labour camp in Navoi, further from his wife and their three children. One Protestant told Forum 18 the harsher punishment against Shestakov was "deliberately set up". Officials at the government's Religious Affairs Committee declined to discuss his case with Forum 18. Two members of Shestakov's congregation have already been fined, with others facing administrative cases.

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.

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