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KAZAKHSTAN: Criminal case against Baptist pastor withdrawn

Pastor Sergei Nizhegorodtsev, leader of an unregistered Baptist church in the village of Georgievka in Eastern Kazakhstan region will not now face prosecution for continuing to lead services in defiance of a court-ordered ban. Prosecutors withdrew the criminal case against him on 28 May, local Baptists reported. "The case against Nizhegorodtsev was withdrawn for absence of the substance of a crime," deputy procurator Erzhan Zharylgapov told Forum 18 News Service. He said he had received appeals "from everywhere" in support of the pastor. "Tell people to stop sending these letters!"

KAZAKHSTAN: Criminal case for refusing to halt church services

Pastor Sergei Nizhegorodtsev of Georgievka in Eastern Kazakhstan region was told on 12 May that he faces a criminal case for refusing to comply with a court-ordered ban on his church holding services, according to a 13 May statement from local Baptists reaching Forum 18 News Service. The move came two weeks after the church's Easter service was raided. Officials deny they are conducting a campaign against the church. "There is nothing illegal in the actions of the law enforcement agencies," assistant procurator Aset Biisekenov insisted to Forum 18. The launch of the criminal case against the pastor came at the same time as an international religious freedom conference was being held in Almaty to inaugurate the Kazakhstan branch of the International Religious Liberty Association.

CENTRAL ASIA: Only limited censorship of religious websites

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.

KAZAKHSTAN: Fines on unregistered religious communities stepped up

A series of raids on Baptist churches that refuse on principle to register with the authorities and fines imposed on their leaders under the administrative code have highlighted continuing attempts by local officials to punish unregistered religious activity, although Kazakhstan's religion law does not make unregistered activity illegal. Jehovah's Witnesses – who do not refuse registration - report that they have seen 28 administrative cases over the past year against communities that have been denied registration on various pretexts. Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee told Forum 18 News Service that the religion law has greater weight than Article 375 of the administrative code – under which the fines have been imposed - and therefore officials have no right to "persecute" believers for refusing to register a religious community.

KAZAKHSTAN: Interrogations and threats follow charity action

Nurbai Arystanov, a Protestant who lives in the town of Arys in South Kazakhstan region, was threatened and briefly detained on 5 March by police, who objected to the fact that he was distributing gifts from the Good Samaritan international charity. One local Protestant, who asked not to be named, claimed to Forum 18 News Service that the Arys deputy police chief, Kurmanal Rakhmatulayev, personally interrogated believers who were listed as having received gifts, and confiscated gifts from those who had received them. He also threatened believers that he would plant hashish in the gifts. "It's all nonsense," Rakhmatulayev told Forum 18, denying that he had threatened Arystanov. But, citing Arystanov's lack of a local residence permit, Rakhmatulayev warned: "I will not allow him to operate in our town."