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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.

RUSSIA: "How can a believer light a match to destroy holy books?"

Russian prosecutors are seeking to have the Russian translation of the most important work for Hare Krishna devotees – the Bhagavad-Gita As it Is - banned. "They are trying not just to declare our book extremist, but our religious teaching also. If they succeed, our community throughout Russia could be declared extremist", the community's lawyer Mikhail Frolov told Forum 18 News Service. Prosecution "expert analyses" have been severely criticised. Meanwhile, an appeal court in Dagestan has ruled that works by the Muslim theologian Said Nursi should be handed to the Dagestan Muslim Board "for a decision on the question of the destruction of the banned books and pamphlets". Forum 18 notes that Russian law bans handing over state functions – such as this decision - to religious organisations. Dagestan's Muslim Board told Forum 18 they have not been given the books, and would not destroy them on state orders. Mikhail Odintsov of the office of Russia's Human Rights Ombudsperson described the decision to Forum 18 as "incomprehensible", asking: "How can a believer light a match to destroy holy books?" Book confiscations and destructions have taken place in relation to both Nursi's works and Jehovah's Witness literature.

RUSSIA: "Unfortunately the judge did not agree with the prosecutor"

Rashid Abdulov, a Muslim who reads the works of theologian Said Nursi, told Forum 18 News Service he was pleased to have been freed on 7 September after nearly eight months' detention. But he rejects the extremism-related charges on which he was convicted and handed a one-year sentence of compulsory work. However, Ulyanovsk Regional Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18 the sentence is too "mild" and will appeal "as we believe he deserves a four-year term in a labour camp". Fellow Nursi reader Asylzhan Kelmukhambetov's appeal is continuing in Orenburg against his 18-month prison term. A diabetes sufferer, he is in the prison hospital. His lawyer told Forum 18 that the judge rejected her request for him to be freed while the appeal is heard. Eight criminal cases on extremism-related charges are underway against Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, four of the cases against named individuals. One is already on trial, while the cases of two more have just been handed to court.

RUSSIA: "The fantasy of the special services"?

Readers of the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi claim prosecutors planted "evidence" of how to make explosives during a raid on a flat in Chelyabinsk where Muslim women meet to pray. Two Nursi readers – one of whom was running a summer school for local girls also raided - now face criminal prosecution. Nursi readers described to Forum 18 News Service claims that they were running schools for future suicide martyrs as "the fantasy of the special services". The Department for Especially Important Cases refused to discuss with Forum 18 why prosecutors had made accusations that the two women were preparing suicide bombers as if they were fact if the investigation has not been concluded. Meanwhile, the criminal case against four Nursi readers in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk has finally reached court after a 17-month investigation, with the preliminary hearing today (31 August). Only one of the four has been allowed to use his own lawyer. In the long-running trial of Jehovah's Witness Aleksandr Kalistratov, prosecutors have called as prosecution witnesses two Russian Orthodox, neither of whom personally knows Kalistratov.

RUSSIA: Criminal cases against "unknown persons" lodged "to prevent lawyers 'meddling'"?

The day after Russia's Supreme Court in Moscow overturned a lower court ban on the activity of the Grace Pentecostal Church in Khabarovsk, local prosecutors again began summoning church members as they investigate two criminal cases against unnamed church members. The Church's lawyer, Inna Zagrebina, told Forum 18 News Service of concerns about criminal cases being lodged against "unknown persons". Church leaders are then questioned without being able to defend themselves. "This is often done to prevent lawyers 'meddling' in the cases," she said. "Then when the investigation is complete they unveil the accusation. So from the start it's clear who they're going to accuse, but that person can't do anything. It's a trick." The FSB security service has taken a close interest in the Church, but denied to Forum 18 it is running a campaign against the Church. Elsewhere, a Baptist conscientious objector to military service has been threatened in his military unit with prosecution. But the Military Prosecutor's Office has insisted that no case is planned.

RUSSIA: "Extremism" prosecutions continue, but Supreme Court advises caution

Russia continues to prosecute Muslim readers of the works of Said Nursi and Jehovah's Witnesses on "extremism" charges, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Supreme Court on 28 June issued an instruction warning that prosecutions of individuals on "extremism" charges should be carefully and narrowly framed. It warns that it is important to consider the individual's intention in distributing the works. If the intention is not to incite hatred or enmity or to humiliate the human dignity of others, prosecutions should not be brought. Officials have been unwilling to discuss the impact of the Supreme Court's instruction on their prosecutions of Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses with Forum 18. Anatoly Tskhai of the Investigation Committee, for example, refused to say if he was aware of the Supreme Court decision. "Ring back in mid-August," he said and put the phone down. Currently, cases are known to be either threatened or under way in Gorno-Altaisk, Ulyanovsk, Astrakhan Region, Krasnoyarsk, Chita, Dagestan and Orenburg.

RUSSIA: 18-month prison term and heavy fine

Asylzhan Kelmukhambetov, a Muslim who reads the works of the theologian Said Nursi, is due to appeal against his 18-month prison term on extremism-related charges, his lawyer Rauila Rogacheva told Forum 18 News Service. Kelmukhambetov, who suffers from diabetes, was arrested at the end of the year-long trial on 28 June when the verdict was handed down and is now in prison hospital in Orenburg. An FSB security service spokesperson defended the prosecution to Forum 18. A court in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk has heavily fined a Muslim organisation for teaching Islam without an educational licence, although Russia's Supreme Court has ruled in a similar case that such licences are not needed. "People have been deprived of their rights to teach and receive religious education," Mufti Gayaz Fatkullin complained to Forum 18. An official of Russia's Human Rights Ombudsperson's Office described the case to Forum 18 as "stupidity and a violation of the rights of religious believers".