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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

UZBEKISTAN: Eight years' imprisonment for "illegal" religious activity?

Following a harsh crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses in Samarkand in February - which saw raids, beatings and a sexual assault - criminal charges have now been launched against 34-year-old Olim Turaev, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. He has been accused of organising an "illegal" religious community (the Samarkand Jehovah's Witnesses have no legal status) and "illegal" religious education. He faces up to eight years' imprisonment if convicted. Prosecutors refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. Eleven other Jehovah's Witnesses were fined, one of whom, Akmaral Rahmanberdiyeva, spent 12 days in custody. Meanwhile, two imams of a mosque in Namangan have been sacked for "illegally" teaching religion to teenagers. Other imams were warned over the same "offence" and the regional head of the Muslim Board was sacked.

UZBEKISTAN: Physical assaults by police on Jehovah's Witnesses

Uzbek police have threatened and physically assaulted members of the Jehovah's Witness religious minority, following raids on homes in Samarkand, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In once case, a young female Jehovah's Witness was taken to a police station, stripped and touched inappropriately by an apparently drunk police officer, Akmal Tilyavov. Asked by Forum 18 why he needed to question her alone and search her, he responded: "I cannot give you any information on that since we are a closed organisation." Asked directly whether he had touched her inappropriately, Tilyavov's tone of voice changed in apparent embarrassment. He refused to answer directly. "Why don't you talk to the Chief of the Division," he eventually said. Jehovah's Witnesses complain that no warrants were provided to justify the raids, nor was legal protocol adhered to. Various personal belongings disappeared from the homes searched. The raids were a week after a Jehovah's Witness student was expelled from a Samarkand school.

UZBEKISTAN: Punishments and church closure

Uzbekistan continues to attack peaceful religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A Baptist in the eastern city of Fergana, Eduard Kim, was fined the equivalent of nine months average wages, after a raid by ten state officials on his house where about 40 local Baptists were meeting for Sunday morning worship. A Pentecostal pastor near the capital Tashkent, Kamal Musakhanov, has been fined over two months average wages for "violating the rules on teaching religious doctrines." His congregation is affiliated to a registered Pentecostal church. Jehovah's Witnesses in the central city of Samarkand were raided and some of their members were severely assaulted by police. And Grace Presbyterian Church in Tashkent has been forced to halt all its activities. Asked why the church was stripped of legal status and property, an official told Forum 18 that "they violated the laws on religious propaganda and not everything was in order with the auction whereby they had purchased their building."

UZBEKISTAN: Fresh eviction threat and more media intolerance incitement

Uzbekistan has dropped criminal charges against members of Grace Church, after the authorities' claim that a cough medicine was psychotropic (mind-altering) were proved to be false. However, church members have told Forum 18 News Service that they face fresh official threats to evict them from their church building. The latest threats have caused fears that "[Protestant] churches' right to property will be reviewed," Forum 18 was told. A major state-run newspaper, "Narodnoe Slovo", has resumed the authorities' periodic campaigns to incite intolerance, by reprinting articles on Grace Church. Amongst false accusations are that it is "hypnotising" people, that "when false preachers run out of words and dollars to attract credulous parishioners (..) they turn to psychotropic substances," and that "greedy pastors tried to stupefy the minds of our children." An article ended "giving a decisive 'No' to the creeping aggression of an alien influence is our and your civil duty!" Previous state intolerance campaigns have coincided with increased suppression of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Challenged by Forum 18 on why the government newspaper is inciting intolerance, Salam Daniyarov, assistant Editor-in-Chief, claimed "we have freedom of speech" and put the phone down.

UZBEKISTAN: Four religious minority members still serving criminal sentences

Only two of the six members of religious minorities, serving sentences under the Criminal Code for peaceful religious activity, have been freed in the wake of December's prisoner amnesty, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Pentecostal Pastor Dmitry Shestakov is still serving a four-year labour camp sentence, Jehovah's Witness Irfon Khamidov is still serving a two-year prison sentence, and another Jehovah's Witness, Dilafruz Arziyeva, is still serving a two-year corrective labour sentence, where 20 per cent of her wages are deducted and handed to the state. Protestant Sharofat Allamova is serving a six-month suspended sentence, but was not eligible for amnesty as she was imprisoned on criminal charges before she became a Christian. The failure to free Arziyeva from her sentence is surprising, as the amnesty applies to almost all women serving sentences. Khamidov's situation is getting worse, as "he has had a number of visitors in the prison, which is not to the liking of the prison authorities," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18, so "they fabricated some charges against him." The amnesty was proclaimed to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the adoption of Uzbekistan's Constitution.

UZBEKISTAN: Death threats and massive fines follow registration application

Two years after applying for legal status, Jehovah's Witnesses in the Uzbek town of Kagan have still not gained state registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Instead they have faced harassment, a police raid and the ten community members were threatened with death and each given fines of five years' minimum wages. Bailiffs have made repeated visits to seize property to pay the fines. Unregistered religious activity is a criminal offence in Uzbekistan, in violation of the country's international human rights commitments. When Forum 18 asked the town Hokim (administration chief), Murot Hudoyorov, why the community had been treated in this way, he stated while laughing that "You're wrong" and then put the phone down. Jehovah's Witnesses, Protestants and Muslims continue to suffer from the state's repression of religious freedom. Even registered communities - such as Baptists in Jizak - are targeted by the authorities.

UZBEKISTAN: Haj pilgrims still strictly controlled and restricted

5,000 people from Uzbekistan have travelled to Mecca for this year's haj pilgrimage, but Forum 18 News Service notes that the number of pilgrims allowed to travel from Uzbekistan is significantly less than from other countries with a similar Muslim population. Uzbekistan has a record of restricting the numbers of pilgrims and strictly controlling their selection. All pilgrims need approval from local authorities, the NSS secret police and the Haj Commission, which is controlled by the state Religious Affairs Committee and state-controlled Spiritual Administration of Muslims (the Muftiate). Also, all pilgrimages can only be made using the state-run airline, Uzbekistan Airways. The amount demanded by the state for the pilgrimage is about 200 times the minimum monthly wage. "Not everyone can go. The list of those banned from going includes everyone the government regards as suspicious," opposition activist Vasila Inoyatova told Forum 18.

UZBEKISTAN: Two years' correctional labour for unregistered religious activity

A Baptist has been sentenced to two years' correctional labour, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Nikolai Zulfikarov was yesterday (29 November) sentenced under Uzbekistan's Criminal Code for "teaching religious doctrines without special religious education and without permission from a central organ of administration of a religious organisation, as well as teaching religion privately". Zulfikarov, who led the five member Khalkabad unregistered Baptist church, was also sentenced to pay the state 20 per cent of his earnings over the next two years. It is not clear whether Zulfikarov will appeal against the decision. Asked whether it was illegal to be a religious believer in Uzbekistan, Judge Bakhrom Batyrov told Forum 18 that the laws of Uzbekistan prohibit people worshipping and praying together without being legally registered. This is the latest sentence against a member of one of Uzbekistan's religious minorities, which along with the majority Muslim community continue to be put under severe official pressure.

UZBEKISTAN: Criminal trial tomorrow for Baptist leader

A Baptist who hosts worship in his home will be tried on criminal charges, starting tomorrow (13 November), Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Nikolai Zulfikarov is being prosecuted under the Criminal Code for "teaching religious doctrines without special religious education and without permission from a central organ of administration of a religious organisation, as well as teaching religion privately". Punishments range from fines of fifty times the minimum monthly wage to three years' imprisonment. Local Baptists, who preferred not to be identified, have complained about continuing harassment. "The authorities have repeatedly visited worship services, drawn up official records [of alleged offences] and confiscated Bibles, concordances, hymnbooks and other Christian brochures and leaflets." They called for the case against Zulfikarov to be closed, for confiscated literature to be returned and for the congregation's worship not to be impeded. Repression of religious communities of all faiths is taking place in Uzbekistan.

UZBEKISTAN: Even harsher Religion Law planned?

Uzbekistan appears to be planning changes to its harsh Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It is unclear how far the process has reached, but, sources in Uzbekistan state that the issue is under discussion in the state Religious Affairs Committee. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from the Committee or from the country's parliament whether a draft Law has already been produced. Nor is it clear how extensive the changes will be to what is already a highly repressive Religion Law. Some religious leaders Forum 18 spoke to have said they know nothing about any plans to amend the Religion Law. Others refused to discuss the issue. Since the current Religion Law and changes to the Criminal and Administrative codes were introduced in 1998, later changes to other laws and regulations have imposed even tighter restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Religious believers of a variety of faiths have pointed out to Forum 18 that many violations of their rights go beyond even the tight restrictions in published laws.

UZBEKISTAN: Severe literature censorship continues

Uzbekistan continues to maintain severe religious literature censorship, Forum 18 News Service notes. Current examples include two shipments of Jehovah's Witness literature – one in transit for Tajikistan and one intended for an Uzbek congregation – which have been held for more than a year. Other religious communities, such as Protestants and Muslims, also experience problems. A Protestant, involved in sending literature requested by Christians in Uzbekistan, told Forum 18 that most shipments never arrived. "This was either through postal inefficiency or because it was rejected at Uzbek customs," the Protestant stated. "So we have given up trying to send literature." Many who would like to receive literature are afraid of the consequences of being identified by the authorities as Christians, from their receiving literature by post. Uzbek officials are reluctant to discuss the issue, but insist that religious material can only be received after specific approval by the state Religious Affairs Committee. Uzbekistan frequently burns religious literature, including the Bible, confiscated from Muslims, Protestants, Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah's Witnesses. Even legally imported literature is confiscated in police raids.

TURKMENISTAN: Did government order Orthodox diocese to split?

The Deputy Chair of Turkmenistan's Committee for Religious Affairs has refused to say whether the government pressured the Orthodox Church to split the Church's Central Asian Diocese by putting its Turkmen Deanery under the Patriarch. "I'm not authorised to respond to you," Nurmukhamed Gurbanov told Forum 18 News Service when asked about the split. However, Gurbanov was willing to discuss other matters, claiming for example that Orthodox parishes in the country face no restrictions. Fr Georgi Ryabykh of the Moscow Patriarchate told Forum 18 that they hope the decision will make pastoral oversight easier. "For years the bishop in Tashkent didn't visit this part of the Diocese, and that isn't normal church life." Deceased President Niyazov had asked for the split in 2005, sparking complaints from another priest that Niyazov was trying to build an independent Orthodox Church just as he had done with Islam. Fr Ryabykh, however, said that "It couldn't just be a response or reaction to a demand by a president, as if the president demands and the Church obeys." He added that "some time was necessary to understand the situation and make a decision."