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UZBEKISTAN: "Legal" repression of Protestants and Muslims continues

As restrictions on Muslim prayers in the month of Ramadan are stepped up, Protestants in Uzbekistan are coming under continued repression Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Amongst the most recent attacks on freedom of thought, conscience and belief are: a suspended jail sentence imposed on Sharofat Allamova after police confiscated Christian literature from her; a Protestant pastor, Pastor Khyn-Mun Kim, being fined about one year's average salary for "illegal" religious activity, as well as a fine being imposed on a colleague, Me Vol Kim; and continuing state efforts to close down the Grace Presbyterian Church and confiscate its building. Twelve Protestants also face charges under the Administrative Code, after they "illegally" met for worship and police confiscated Christian literature from them. Asked by Forum 18 why religious believers face raids and punishment for meeting for worship, Klara Alasheva, Karakalpakstan's First Deputy Justice Minister, completely denied that any religious communities face difficulties.

UZBEKISTAN: Spies and videotape

As well as overtly cracking down on religious activity the authorities do not like, Uzbekistan's National Security Service (NSS) secret police has stepped up its covert surveillance of religious communities in recent years. Members of a variety of religious communities have told Forum 18 News Service of hidden microphones in places of worship, the presence of NSS agents during worship and the recruitment of spies within communities. NSS agents "have a vehicle with tinted windows, and ten minutes before the end of the service they wind down the window enough to allow them to film everyone leaving," one Christian reported. "The NSS especially tries to recruit among the leaders, trying to find out how what's going on within each community, who is going where, how much money each gets, where the community gets its money from," another source told Forum 18. "As in Soviet times the secret police want to know," a third source told Forum 18, "not just to smash religious communities but simply to know." NSS press spokesperson Olimjan Turakulov refused to tell Forum 18 why the NSS spies on religious communities.

UZBEKISTAN: Tashkent church to lose its building – and its legal status?

Eight years after the Grace Presbyterian Church in the capital Tashkent bought a former cinema to use as its church, the city department of the State Property Committee wants to annul the sale, Protestants have told Forum 18 News Service. The case is due to be heard at Tashkent Economic Court on 5 September. On 13 August, "without warning", Justice Ministry officials arrived for a check-up on the church's activity. If "violations" are found, the church could be stripped of legal status and thus the right to conduct any religious activity. The church also faces pressure from local residents. "The aim of the check-up was to strip the church of its registration," one Protestant told Forum 18. "At the moment it is still registered and can still function," a Justice Ministry official told Forum 18. He would not say what prompted the decision to check up on the church. Meanwhile, police have launched a manhunt for Protestant Christian Makset Djabbarbergenov, who went into hiding after a criminal case was launched against him in early August to punish him for his religious activity. If convicted he faces up to six years' imprisonment.

UZBEKISTAN: Five years' imprisonment for hosting worship services?

When seven police officers with a video camera raided his home on Sunday morning, 29 July, Nikolai Zulfikarov was away. But this did not stop prosecutors launching a criminal case to punish him for "illegally" organising a religious community, with a possible sentence of five years' imprisonment. The small Baptist congregation that meets in his home in the eastern Namangan Region refuses on principle to apply for state registration. One local Baptist told Forum 18 News Service that prosecutors wanted to sentence Zulfikarov immediately, but now there is "total silence". He added that "it is not clear if this means they will abandon the attempt or if they are moving stealthily behind the scenes". Other church members were questioned for many hours and at least one was beaten. The church was again raided the following Sunday during its service. Forum 18 was unable to reach lead investigator Abdumalik Motboev. Ikrom Saipov of the government's National Human Rights Centre in Tashkent said he could not comment on cases he was not familiar with but denied that religious freedom is restricted. "We don't repress religious believers because of their faith," he claimed to Forum 18.

UZBEKISTAN: Entire community to be banned?

If, as the Jehovah's Witnesses increasingly fear is likely, the authorities strip the last surviving registered Jehovah's Witness congregation of its legal status, the entire activity by the community in the country will become illegal. "This will return us to how it was in the Soviet period, when we were also banned," one Jehovah's Witness who preferred not to be identified told Forum 18 News Service. He said the congregation in Chirchik near Tashkent received a second letter on 13 August warning that it is violating the law, an accusation it rejects. No official was available to explain to Forum 18 why an entire religious community seems set to become illegal. "If the Soviet authorities were not able to prevent Jehovah's Witnesses from practising their faith, this ban won't stop them either," the Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18. Two Jehovah's Witnesses, Irfon Khamidov and Dilafruz Arziyeva, have already been sentenced this year for "illegally teaching religion". Many more have been fined.

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.