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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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RUSSIA: "I've never encountered the practice of destroying religious literature before"

Judge Patimat Dadayeva in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Dagestan has ordered up to 70 copies of translations of 15 different Islamic books, by the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi, to be destroyed. She refused to tell Forum 18 News Service why she ordered their destruction and refused to order other Islamic books seized from local Muslim Ziyavdin Dapayev to be returned. "This is blasphemy," Dapayev's lawyer Murtazali Barkayev told Forum 18. "I've never encountered the practice of destroying religious literature in Russia before." Four more works by Nursi were in March banned and placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Courts in several places in Russia are also seeking to ban more Jehovah's Witness publications. Elsewhere, prosecutors in Tomsk have today (21 March) failed in their appeal against an earlier court decision rejecting their suit to have the book The Bhagavad-gita As It Is declared extremist. This text is the most important book for Hare Krishna devotees. Tomsk Regional Prosecutor's Office will decide whether to appeal against the latest decision once the Regional Court has issued its full written decision, spokesperson Svetlana Krimskaya told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: One "extremism" criminal trial ends, others continue

After two years of investigation and trial hearings, Russian prosecutors have run out of time in their attempt to convict on "extremism"-related charges four Muslim readers of the works of theologian Said Nursi from Krasnoyarsk. However, criminal cases continue against other Muslim readers of Nursi's works and Jehovah's Witnesses elsewhere in Russia, Forum 18 News Service notes. Two of the defendents, Andrei Dedkov and Yevgeny Petry, cautiously welcomed the closure of the cases, though both stressed to Forum 18 that the decision has not been issued yet in writing. Both said that although this case is now closed, a new case could be launched at any time. Petry told Forum 18 the same day that he and his friends are still under surveillance and have their phone calls monitored. Dedkov noted that many of "our books" (Russian translations of Nursi's works) are still banned. A common factor in many of the Nursi reader and Jehovah's Witness cases is surveillance and raids by the FSB security service.

RUSSIA: Kaliningrad Muslim "extremist" ?

Amir Abuev, a resident of Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, is the latest Muslim to face a criminal case on "extremism"-related charges, after an 11 February FSB security service raid on his flat where local Muslims had gathered to pray the namaz (prayers). Participants told Forum 18 News Service they were questioned all night, while Abuev – a reader of the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi - was detained for about 48 hours. Abuev's friends expressed concern that he – like other Muslims who read Nursi's works – could be imprisoned on "fabricated charges". FSB officers told the media Abuev belongs to the banned Nurdzhular movement. Like other Muslims who read Nursi's works, Abuev denied to Forum 18 that such a movement exists. The FSB security service investigator leading the case, Lieutenant Artyom Voychenko, declined to discuss the case. "I won't give you any information," he told Forum 18. The FSB security service also confiscated all Abuev's literature and DVDs with religious material in an illegal way.

RUSSIA: Prisoner of conscience freed but not exonerated

Seven months after being imprisoned in the Russian city of Orenburg, Muslim prisoner of conscience Asylzhan Kelmukhambetov was freed on 19 January at the end of his second appeal against his 18-month prison term, his lawyer Rauila Rogacheva and family members told Forum 18 News Service. A reader of the works of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi, Kelmukhambetov had been imprisoned on "extremism"-related charges which he rejected. The Regional Court changed his punishment from imprisonment into a fine, which he is not required to pay due to changes in the Criminal Code. Rogacheva told Forum 18 that "I don't agree with the verdict as Asylzhan has not been exonerated." She said she will continue to challenge Kelmukhambetov's conviction when she gets the written verdict, which generally takes a week to issue. Elsewhere, cases continue on "extremism"-related criminal charges against other Muslims who read Nursi's works and Jehovah's Witnesses, who are also subject to raids on their meetings by officials. However, a magistrate in Udmurtia has upheld the rights of a local Jehovah's Witness community to meet for worship without notifying the authorities first.

RUSSIA: Appeal to be freed from jail due, but criminal prosecutions continue

After seven months' imprisonment in Russia, Asylzhan Kelmukhambetov is hoping that his second appeal against an 18-month jail term – due on 19 January at Orenburg Regional Court - will see him freed, his lawyer Raulya Rogacheva told Forum 18 News Service on 10 January. She said that: "Asylzhan has been in the prison hospital since his imprisonment suffering from the effects of diabetes. I saw him yesterday and he was the worst I have ever seen him." Although her client does not smoke, he is being held with others "who smoke constantly". She said that as a devout Muslim he only eats halal food, yet the warders bring whatever has been prepared, regardless of whether it meets his religious dietary requirements. The trial of four more Nursi readers on the same "extremism"-related charges resumes in a Krasnoyarsk court on 18 January. Muslim readers of Nursi's works frequently face prosecution under Criminal Code Article 282.2 ("Organisation of the activity of an extremist organisation"). Elsewhere in Russia, other criminal cases are continuing against people for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. These include Jehovah's Witnesses, who are normally prosecuted under Criminal Code Article 282.

RUSSIA: One acquittal, but the same day trial of two more begins

The criminal trial in Russia of a Jehovah's Witness married couple, Andrei and Lyutsiya Raitin, on "extremism" charges under Criminal Code Article 282 is due to resume on 23 January. Jehovah's Witnesses describe the accusations as "baseless", and have pointed out to Forum 18 News Service that the same day the Raitins' trial began - 22 December 2011 – fellow Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov was finally acquitted on exactly the same charges. "Unlike Kalistratov, the Raitins held no position of responsibility in their local community," Jehovah's Witness spokesperson Grigory Martynov told Forum 18. "They're just ordinary members of the community". Article 282 continues to be used against Jehovah's Witnesses, and punishments under this article were increased in December 2011. Elsewhere in Russia, other criminal cases are continuing against people for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. These include Muslim readers of the works of Said Nursi, who are normally prosecuted under Criminal Code Article 282.2.

RUSSIA: Has "madness" of banning religious publications been stopped?

On 20 December 2011, Russia's Ambassador to India Aleksandr Kadakin agreed with widespread Indian outrage at attempts by prosecutors in the Siberian city of Tomsk to declare the book the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is "extremist". "It is not normal either when religious books are sent for examination to ignorant people," Kadakin added, describing those seeking to ban the work as "madmen". Eight days later a Tomsk court finally rejected the prosecutor's suit. Yuri Pleshakov of Moscow's Hare Krishna community welcomed the ruling. "I hope the authorities will learn their lesson and that the case can now be forgotten," he told Forum 18 News Service. However, the prosecution case to ban a further Jehovah's Witness work resumes in court in Krasnodar Region on 16 January. 68 Jehovah's Witness publications and 15 works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi have already been ruled "extremist" and placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, making it illegal to distribute or store them for distribution.

RUSSIA: "This isn't about freedom of conscience or censorship"

Russian state censorship increasingly extended nationwide in November to cover Jehovah's Witness websites – and possibly also Hare Krishna sms announcements, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A Prosecutor's Office official claimed to Forum 18 that blocking the websites "isn't about freedom of conscience or censorship – it's about restricting access to extremist materials." Also, four more Jehovah's Witness publications have been banned nationwide by being added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Meanwhile, attempts to ban the Russian translation of a key book for Hare Krishna devotees – the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is – have been delayed. The reason is a delay for an unknown length of time in producing an "expert analysis" before the case can resume. Elsewhere, on 22 December an appeal is due to be heard after the second trial of Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov on "extremism" charges. Also facing "extremism" charges is a Muslim reader of the works of theologian Said Nursi, Ilham Merazhov. He is challenging the search of his home and the launching of a criminal case against him.

UZBEKISTAN: New haj pilgrimage, same old restrictions

The Uzbek authorities have again this year imposed severe restrictions on how many pilgrims could take part in this year's haj pilgrimage, now underway in Saudi Arabia. Only 5,080 out of a potential quota of about 28,000 travelled to Mecca. About as many pilgrims travelled from Kyrgyzstan as from Uzbekistan, more than five times more populous. An official of one Sergeli District mahalla (neighbourhood), with between 3,000 and 7,000 residents, told Forum 18 News Service that "our mahalla will be able to send pilgrims only in 2012. Several people are on the waiting list but maybe only one will go." As before, an "unwritten instruction" banned would-be pilgrims under the age of 45, officials of a local mahalla committee in Tashkent told Forum 18. Pilgrims faced official screening, while secret police officers reportedly accompany the pilgrims. An Imam outside Tashkent, who did not wish to be named for fear of state reprisals, complained that "unofficial payments" more than doubled the cost of the haj. "The number of applicants would be much, much higher if the cost was not so high," he lamented to Forum 18.

RUSSIA: Fined for meeting for worship

Increasing numbers of people – mainly Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses without their own permanent buildings - are being fined or threatened with fines in Russia for organising or conducting meetings for worship which has not been specifically approved by the local authorities, Forum 18 News Service has found. Local police and prosecutor's offices insist that such permission is required, and bring cases under Article 20.2 of the Code of Administrative Violations ("Violation of the established procedure for organising or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket"). The legality of these prosecutions under the Constitution and the Religion Law has been challenged, but it appears that around half of the prosecutions are successful. Inna Zagrebina of the Moscow-based Guild of Experts on Religion and Law told Forum 18 that she regrets that many such prosecutions are not legally challenged. However, one case, Aleksandr Nabokikh and Others v. Russia, was lodged at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in May. Residents of old people's homes have also occasionally been denied the right to have their co-religionists visit them.

RUSSIA: Raids on meetings for worship increasing?

Russian police and other security agencies appear to increasingly be raiding religious communities as they meet for worship, Forum 18 News Service notes. Police have often raided and searched places of worship – particularly of Jehovah's Witnesses – but not when services and meetings are underway. Raids on religious communities as they meet for worship are rarer, though these have increased. In September, four Jehovah's Witness communities in the Chuvash Republic, and one Muslim community in Belgorod Region, were raided as they met for worship. One Jehovah's Witness is now facing "extremism" criminal charges. In Belgorod, several hundred Muslims were in the middle of Friday prayers when police – some with weapons and wearing masks – broke up the service, claiming to be looking for illegal immigrants. Of more than 350 men present, more than 150 were taken to police stations. Only six were found to be in Russia illegally. "We ourselves have asked the police why they didn't wait until our prayers were over," community leader Ramazan Ramazanov told Forum 18. "We have had no reply yet."

RUSSIA: New sentences, raids, criminal cases

Criminal prosecutions on extremism-related charges of people in Russia exercising their freedom of religion or belief appear to be increasing, Forum 18 News Service notes. Six readers of the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi were convicted at a two-hour trial on 11 October in Nizhny Novgorod. Three received prison terms, with Elshan Gasanov receiving one year's imprisonment. That same evening in Novosibirsk, police and FSB security service officers raided several homes looking for copies of Nursi's books. Several people were detained and later released. Two, Ilham Merazhov and Kamil Odilov, now face criminal charges. Meanwhile, Gorno-Altaisk District Court in Siberia has set 3 November for announcing the verdict in the long-running criminal trial of Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov. These actions came as a trial continues aimed at banning the most important work for Hare Krishna devotees, the Bhagavad-Gita As it Is, as "extremist" literature. Devotees fear that they too could – like Muslims readers of Nursi's works and Jehovah's Witnesses - face "extremism" charges leading to possible imprisonment.