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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

KAZAKHSTAN: Tighter event restrictions back in Parliament's lower house

On 2 December, the upper house of Parliament approved in revised form amendments to the Religion Law to make holding religious events away from state-registered places of worship more difficult. The amendments now return to the lower house. The Senate narrowed the type of events that would need to undergo the burdensome process of seeking special official permission in advance. A legal specialist questions whether ordinary police officers would know that the new requirements – if adopted – would not apply to religious communities meeting in rented premises. "Much will depend on the instructions of religious affairs authorities and the discretion of local or national officials," the legal specialist told Forum 18.

KYRGYZSTAN: Jehovah's Witness book ban in court, criminal case, secret police ban request

Jehovah's Witness teaching "is contradictory and oriented towards people who don't know the fundamentals of religion and the Bible" and based on "the personal views of the founders of the organisation who misinterpret the Bible", NSC secret police chief Kamchybek Tashiyev claimed to the General Prosecutor in July. He called for their literature to be banned and a ban on the entire organisation to be considered (while the NSC continues a criminal case). Without informing Jehovah's Witnesses, the General Prosecutor's Office lodged a suit to Bishkek's Pervomaisky District Court for 13 books and 6 videos to be declared "extremist". The case is due to resume in court on Thursday morning (2 December).

UZBEKISTAN: Religious freedom survey, November 2021

Freedom of religion and belief, with interlinked freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, remains severely restricted in Uzbekistan. Forum 18's survey analysis documents violations including: jailing and torturing prisoners of conscience whose only crime is to exercise their freedom of religion and belief; banning education and worship meetings without state permission; complete state control of all expressions of Islam; and religious literature censorship and destruction.

RUSSIA: "I would like to believe" acquittal "is first of many"

For the first time since the Supreme Court ban on Jehovah's Witnesses as "extremist" in 2017, a Vladivostok court yesterday (22 November) issued an acquittal. Dmitry Barmakin walked free after the Judge cited 28 October Supreme Court amendments which direct judges to ascertain a defendant's "specific actions", their motivation, and "the significance [of these actions] for the continuation or resumption of [a banned organisation]'s activities", rather than rely on generalised claims. The prosecutor could appeal against the acquittal. A 63-year-old teacher Nakiya Sharifullina risks being jailed if Tatarstan's Supreme Court on 17 December upholds the prosecutor's appeal against her suspended sentence for allegedly organising a "madrassah".

RUSSIA: "Prior conspiracy" leads to eight-year jail terms

Courts have jailed four Jehovah's Witnesses for eight years each so far in 2021 for exercising freedom of religion or belief, one in Blagoveshchensk and three in Astrakhan, equalling the term a Dagestan court handed to Muslim Ilgar Aliyev in 2018. Courts gave other Jehovah's Witnesses shorter jail terms. In Astrakhan, the judge cited as an aggravating circumstance "the commission of a crime as part of a group of persons, by prior conspiracy". Astrakhan Region Prosecutor's Office did not reply as to why prosecutors requested such long jail sentences, and why meeting for prayer and Bible reading should be treated as a criminal offence.

BELARUS: "We, political prisoners, were not allowed to attend clubs, the church .."

Prison officials finally allowed Catholic political prisoner Mikita Yemialyianau a pastoral visit on 3 November. He had just ended a three-week hunger strike in protest at the denial of a clergy visit since his transfer to Mogilev prison in 2020. Prison officials prevented him from renewing a subscription to a Catholic newspaper. Prison officials finally allowed Orthodox Christian Yelena Movshuk a clergy visit in October, her first since her August 2020 arrest. Prison officials prevented her attending a worship meeting in August 2021. "We, political prisoners, were not allowed to attend clubs, the church, the gym or places of study," a political prisoner freed in September declared.

AZERBAIJAN: Alternative service "not under discussion" despite latest ECtHR decision

Despite another European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decision that Azerbaijan violated the human rights of two more conscientious objectors, Saadat Novruzova of the Presidential Administration's Human Rights Protection Unit told Forum 18 that changing the law to introduce a civilian alternative to compulsory military service "is not under discussion". Azerbaijan committed to the Council of Europe to introduce an alternative service by January 2003. The 7 October ECtHR decision reminded Azerbaijan of a similar earlier decision that "calls in principle for legislative action" to satisfy "the obligations incumbent on it of assuring .. the right to benefit from the right to conscientious objection".

CRIMEA: Four already jailed, 12 more to follow?

A Sevastopol court jailed 49-year-old Jehovah's Witness Igor Schmidt for six years on "extremism"-related charges to be followed by a six-year ban on specific activities although the prosecution presented no victims of any wrongdoing in court. Schmidt is the fourth Crimean Jehovah's Witness handed a long jail term. Another is on trial in Kerch and at least 11 more face criminal cases. The widow of a man shot dead by Russian forces in disputed circumstances in May has lost her appeal against the denial of release of the body for an Islamic burial.