TAJIKISTAN: Authorities concerned at publicity over Jehovah's Witness fines
Media interest in the case of two Jehovah's Witnesses fined for leading a religious meeting in Tursun-Zade raided by the police has provoked serious concern among the local authorities, Forum 18 News Service has learned. They had hoped the case against them – first reported by Forum 18 on 28 April and picked up by a local television station - would go unremarked by the outside world. "We hope the authorities will not take it out on us because our case has unexpectedly received such wide publicity," one of the two, Sukhrob Maksudov, told Forum 18. The Jehovah's Witnesses expect the Supreme Court to hear their appeal against the sentences in about a month's time.
The two Jehovah's Witnesses - Grigori Putenkov and Sukhrob Maksudov - have complained that a local television station portrayed them as criminals in a report broadcast on 30 April. "Our town is quite small and this programme has damaged our image," Maksudov told Forum 18 on 21 May. "We do not think of ourselves as criminals."
However, a producer at Tursun-Zade denied that the report had been biased. "We heard about the court case against the Jehovah's Witnesses from a broadcast by the Tajik service of Radio Liberty, which in its turn quoted Forum 18," Firuz Khalikov told Forum 18 from Tursun-Zade on 21 May. "We found your site on the Internet, translated the article from English and on the basis of that we showed an objective, neutral television report."
On 20 April several police officers raided the flat where around 40 local Jehovah's Witnesses were meeting, instructing all those present to write statements. Putenkov and Maksudov were taken to the town's police station, where officers started to insult them and struck Putenkov several times. On 24 April the town court fined each of the two men five times the minimum monthly wage (some 57 Norwegian kroner, 8 Euros or 8 US dollars) under Article 211, part 2 of the administrative code, which punishes "violation of the law on giving religious instruction" (see F18News 28 April 2003).
Maksudov reported that on 3 May he and Putenkov lodged an appeal against the town court sentence to the Supreme Court in Dushanbe. "We hope the authorities will not take it out on us because our case has unexpectedly received such wide publicity," he told Forum 18. "We do not seek confrontation and hope that in the end we will come to an understanding with the authorities."
No date has yet been set for the Supreme Court hearing, but the Jehovah's Witnesses expect it to be in about a month's time.
1 May 2003
Religious leaders know nothing about the amendments to Tajikistan's law on religion which officials expect to be adopted in the second half of the year. "We have only learnt about the proposed changes to the law from you," Said Negmatov of the Islamic Centre told Forum 18 News Service. "My main worry is that the draft law is being prepared behind the scenes without public discussion," Baptist pastor Aleksei Tsirulev declared. Said Akhmedov, chairman of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, told Forum 18 that under the new law, individual religious communities will need to present a list of 100 members to get registration. While Muslim, Russian Orthodox and Jehovah's Witness representatives said this would not be difficult for them, Tsirulev was concerned, warning that "this will mean that in many towns and villages our fellow believers will be deprived of the opportunity to observe religious rituals".
28 April 2003
Tajikistan's Jehovah's Witness community intends to appeal to the Supreme Court against fines imposed on two of its members on 24 April by a court in Tursun-Zade, a Jehovah's Witness who asked not to be identified told Forum 18 News Service. The two Jehovah's Witnesses, Grigori Putenkov and Sukhrob Maksudov, were fined for leading a religious meeting in a private flat raided by the police. The judge who handed down the fine, Davlatbek Zabirov, defended his decision, telling Forum 18 that Tajikistan's law on religion does not allow anyone to give religious instruction without a licence and that the administrative code sets out punishment for those who violate this provision. "Thus, when I pronounced the sentence, I was working strictly within the law."
22 April 2003
Despite authoritarian rule, high levels of censorship of the local media and periodic barring of access to foreign-based political opposition websites, Central Asia's governments have so far only enacted limited censorship over access to religious websites based outside the region, a Forum 18 News Service investigation has found. Uzbekistan permanently bars access to the London-based website of Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, though not to its Pakistan-related site. In several Uzbek Internet cafes, Forum 18 even came across the notice: "Viewing of religious and pornographic sites is forbidden". But with low Internet use in Central Asia and a population too poor to be able to afford access, Central Asia's governments – which to a greater or lesser extent try to control all religious activity - may believe they do not need to impose religious censorship on the Internet.