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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

TURKMENISTAN: Former Chief Mufti released, Baptist prisoner of conscience still in jail

Relatives and friends of Turkmenistan's former Chief Mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, local people in his northern home region and visitors from neighbouring Uzbekistan have held a traditional Turkmen "sadaka" (thanksgiving feast) to celebrate his release from prison, Forum 18 News Service has been told. "Very, very many people came," exiled Turkmen human rights activist Farid Tukhbatullin of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights told Forum 18. However, the other known religious prisoner, Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky, has not been released. The family confirmed to Forum 18 today (13 August) that he is still being held in a labour camp with harsh conditions, and insist that he is being punished for his activity with his unregistered Baptist congregation. Several Jehovah's Witnesses have recently been given suspended jail sentences for refusing military service on religious grounds. Since Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became President in early 2007, raids, fines, public threats, imprisonment and other violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief have significantly increased.

UZBEKISTAN: Two Protestants receive ten-day prison terms

Hudoer Pardaev and Igor Kim, members of God's Love Pentecostal Church, spent ten days in prison in June after being found guilty of violating laws on religion and "illegal" religious teaching, Protestant sources told Forum 18 News Service. In a separate case, Baptist Sharofat Allamova was held for four days in mid-June after a late-night check on a bus taking her back to her home town of Urgench revealed she had Christian books and films in her bag. Now back at home, Allamova faces criminal prosecution for violating the laws on religion with a maximum sentence if convicted of three years' imprisonment. All three Protestants had Christian literature confiscated. In the past, courts have ordered that confiscated Muslim, Christian and Hare Krishna literature be destroyed. No official at the government's Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent was prepared to explain to Forum 18 why religious communities face mounting pressure.

UZBEKISTAN: Pentecostal and Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience face harsh labour camp conditions

Friends of Pentecostal prisoner of conscience Dmitry Shestakov, sentenced to four years in a labour camp, have told Forum 18 News Service of their concern at the conditions he is being held in. He has lost between 15 and 20 kilograms (33 to 44 pounds) in weight and is being pressured to renounce his faith. Former prisoners from Camp No. 29, where he is being held, describe unsanitary and dangerous living and working conditions, which cause a high level of sickness among prisoners. Guards beat them with truncheons and members of criminal gangs have a ruthless hold over other prisoners. Jehovah's Witness prisoner of conscience Irfon Khamidov has lost his appeal against a sentence of two years in a labour camp. Jehovah's Witnesses note irregularities in the legal process, including testimony from two people claimed by the authorities to be "victims" of Khamidov's "illegal" teaching, who testified at his original trial that they had never met him. The authorities have refused to speak to Forum 18 about the cases.

UZBEKISTAN: Crackdown on Protestants continues

In the latest deportation for religious activity known to Forum 18 News Service, a Tajik Pentecostal who has lived in Uzbekistan for more than 10 years has been deported to Tajikistan. Sayora (who preferred that her last name not be published) was held in jail for 22 days before deportation. Other church members arrested and held by the NSS secret police in the raid include a man who was intimidated by officials and neighbours into moving out of his local mahalla (urban district). Five church members were fined and three were jailed for five days after trial. A registered Full Gospel congregation near Tashkent has failed to persuade the authorities to hold Anti-Terrorist police to account for violent threats made during a raid on the church. Police claimed the church was "preparing terrorists." After another police raid in north-west Uzbekistan, where all non-Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox religious activity is a criminal offence, a Protestant has been sentenced for "illegally teaching religion." The trial of other local Protestants is continuing. Officials have refused to discuss these cases with Forum 18.

UZBEKISTAN: Jehovah's Witness latest victim of "illegal" religious teaching charges

Three weeks after Jehovah's Witness Irfon Khamidov was imprisoned for two years by Samarkand City Criminal Court for "illegal" religious teaching, the same court has sentenced fellow Jehovah's Witness Dilafruz Arziyeva on the same charges. She has received a two year correctional labour sentence, where 20 per cent of her wages will be docked, Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service. Authorities in Samarkand have long refused to give the Jehovah's Witnesses legal status. A local official rejected an application in 2002, arguing that enough other religious communities were registered locally for people "to realise their freedom of conscience and to practise their beliefs". Also punished this year on "illegal" religious teaching charges was Pentecostal Christian Salavat Serikbayev. But he has had his two year correctional labour sentence reduced to one year. He has been assigned to cultivate plants in the desert, with 20 per cent of his wages docked.

UZBEKISTAN: Church closes because of official pressure

Complaining that it was "too dangerous" to continue to meet, the Resurrection Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in the Fergana Valley town of Andijan – long denied state registration - has decided to close down. "We have faced such pressure from the leaders of the local mahallas [urban districts] and from the prosecutor, especially this year," the church's pastor Bakhtier Tuichiev told Forum 18 News Service. "It is too painful to talk about all the threats and insults we have had to endure." Fined last December, Tuichiev says he is now constantly monitored by police and is among a growing number of active Protestants denied permission to leave Uzbekistan. Eight members of another Full Gospel congregation in Andijan have had their appeals against fines imposed in May turned down. Their pastor, Dmitry Shestakov, is serving a four-year labour camp sentence.

UZBEKISTAN: Jehovah's Witness beaten, tried and sentenced to labour camp

Samarkand City Court sentenced Jehovah's Witness Irfon Khamidov on 14 May to two years in a labour camp on charges of "illegally" teaching his faith in a trial Jehovah's Witnesses say was marred by "procedural violations". "Two of the 'witnesses' summoned to testify against Khamidov actually acknowledged that they had never seen him before," Jehovah's Witnesses complained to Forum 18 News Service. They added that Khamidov was beaten in pre-trial detention. His appeal is due to be heard on 19 June. Officials declined to discuss his case with Forum 18, though a Samarkand Internal Affairs official claimed to Forum 18 (wrongly) that religious believers are able to meet for worship in private homes. In another of the criminal cases launched this year against Jehovah's Witnesses, Ramil Gareev has been found guilty in Karshi of "illegal" religious activity, but Russian news agency Interfax reports that he was immediately amnestied. Of the several dozen Jehovah's Witness communities in Uzbekistan, the government allows only one to operate legally.

UZBEKISTAN: Imprisoned pastor transferred to harsher camp

After twice being punished in the isolation cell in his open work camp near Tashkent, imprisoned Pentecostal pastor Dmitry Shestakov is being transferred to a harsher labour camp to serve the rest of his punishment, Protestant sources have told Forum 18 News Service. "Cunning by nature, he does not keep his promises," the 25 May court verdict alleged. "He does not repent for the crime he has committed." Shestakov, who leads a church in Andijan in the Fergana Valley, is to be transferred to a labour camp in Navoi, further from his wife and their three children. One Protestant told Forum 18 the harsher punishment against Shestakov was "deliberately set up". Officials at the government's Religious Affairs Committee declined to discuss his case with Forum 18. Two members of Shestakov's congregation have already been fined, with others facing administrative cases.

UZBEKISTAN: Government issues orders to religious communities

A three-page document from a regional state administration in Uzbekistan, seen by Forum 18 News Service, reveals the extent to which state officials expect religious communities to obey them. Amongst other directives, a Protestant pastor is ordered to draw up a plan with the state Religious Affairs Committee "to prevent missionary activity." Regional representatives of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims and of the state Religious Affairs Committee are ordered "to bring under constant close observation all officially registered religious organisations" and "to strengthen the struggle with people conducting illegal religious education and organising small religious gatherings." Officials have refused to discuss with Forum 18 why, although religion and state are formally separate, officials issue orders to religious communities. Echoing Soviet times, officials see no reason not to interfere in the internal life of religious communities, and expect that their orders will be obeyed.

UZBEKISTAN: Protestant sentenced for "violating the procedure for teaching religion"

Following the jailing for four years of Protestant Pastor Dmitry Shestakov, Pentecostal Christian Salavat Serikbayev was today (10 May) in Uzbekistan given a two-year suspended jail sentence for teaching religion illegally, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Serikbayev has now been allowed home, but he could be jailed if he commits any further "crime," such as any religious activity the authorities do not like. He was also banned from travelling abroad and the court ordered that 20 per cent of any salary he earns be taken from him. Serikbayev does not have a job, and lives in a town with about 80 per cent unemployment. Last month, another Protestant was given a fine totalling more than most people in his home city earn in a year. Police continue to target Protestants, recently detaining six Christian women and one man who were celebrating a birthday in a private home. All seven people were handcuffed and detained overnight, Forum 18 has learnt, some being beaten up by police.

UZBEKISTAN: Was imprisoned pastor forced to renounce appeal?

Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov is claimed by officials in Uzbekistan to have "voluntarily" renounced his right to an appeal and, because of poor health, begged to be transferred immediately to his place of punishment. Friends of the pastor, who has been sentenced to four years in a work camp, have told Forum 18 News Service that they are very concerned about this claim, as well as the unexplained cause of his poor health. Pastor Shestakov had appealed against his sentence, and officials have not explained why he has suddenly withdrawn the appeal, or why it was not heard within one month of the sentence as Uzbek law requires. Shestakov himself had complained about this delay to the Regional Court and the Prosecutor's Office. Meanwhile, the verdict in the trial of Protestant Salavat Serikbayev for "violating the procedure for teaching religion" is expected. Protestants have also complained to Forum 18 about continuing attacks in the state-run press, such as an article stating that missionaries are turning people into zombies and implying that sharing beliefs is "religious violence."

TURKMENISTAN: May trial for imprisoned Baptist leader?

The criminal trial of imprisoned Baptist leader Vyacheslav Kalataevsky may begin very soon, his wife has told Forum 18 News Service. "The court will not tell me officially when the trial is due to start, but we have indications it could be on 2 or 4 May," Valentina Kalataevskaya told Forum 18. Kalataevsky was arrested at his home by the MSS secret police on charges of illegally crossing the border. His wife is convinced that "although officials don't mention it, I believe there is a religious motivation to the case." In 2001 he was expelled from Turkmenistan, where he was born and lives, during a campaign of expulsions of foreign passport holders engaged in religious activity. Since Kalataevsky's arrest on 12 March, his wife has been denied access to him. There has also been no progress in the case of Merdan Shirmedov, a Protestant denied permission to leave Turkmenistan to join his pregnant wife in the USA. Officials have refused to discuss these cases, and the case of the imprisoned former Chief Mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, with Forum 18.