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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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CENTRAL ASIA: Religious intolerance in Central Asia

In June 2006, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) held a "Tolerance Implementation Meeting on Promoting Inter-Cultural, Inter-Religious and Inter-Ethnic Understanding," in Kazakhstan. In a paper for the 11 June NGO Preparatory Conference, Igor Rotar of Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org looked at the reality of religious intolerance in Central Asia. This vital issue must be considered by examining the concrete reality of state policy that restricts the rights of believers of one or another confession, and religious intolerance in everyday life. It is sadly impossible to avoid the conclusion that many states in Central Asia deliberately pursue a policy which violates international religious freedom standards - despite the many fine-sounding statements made by these same states at OSCE and other conferences.

UZBEKISTAN: Judge defends massive fines and jail sentence

Judge Eshemarat Atajanov has vigorously defended to Forum 18 News Service his imposition of massive fines and a seven-day prison term for unregistered religious activity. "The activity of unregistered religious communities is forbidden in Uzbekistan," he told Forum 18. "But Salavat Serikbayev, Jumabai Senetullayev and Lepes Omarov still continued the activity of their illegal community, in spite of countless warnings." Such penalties are barred by the international human rights standards Uzbekistan has acceded to. As well as jailing Lepes Omarov, Judge Atajanov fined the other two Protestant leaders over 50 times the minimum monthly salary each, solely for leading an unregistered church. Muynak, where the three live, is known for its poverty following the ecological disaster around the Aral Sea. An intense crackdown against religious freedom and other human rights in Uzbekistan is in progress.

KYRGYZSTAN: New law to restrict religious freedom?

An official of Kyrgyzstan's state Religious Affairs Committee has told Forum 18 News Service that the Religion Law could soon be amended to restrict evangelism or proselytism. "I hope that the new draft of the Law will be as close as possible to international standards," But, "we have to take local reality as our starting point," Shamsybek Zakirov told Forum 18. He expressed concern about anger from local Muslims in southern Kyrgyzstan, directed at the Religious Affairs Committee and local Protestants at Protestant evangelism. Zakirov confirmed statements made by Pentecostal Pastor Dzhanybek Zhakipov to Forum 18 that pressure by the authorities on local Protestants has increased. Government minister Adakhan Madumarov today (12 July) was reported as also indicating that the Religion Law may be tightened. The problem of intolerance of Christians and other religious minorities – leading to violent attacks and even murders – is widespread in Central Asia.

UZBEKISTAN: Another Protestant faces criminal charges

In Muynak in Karakalpakstan region – where all Protestant activity is banned – local Protestant Lepes Omarov faces up to three years' imprisonment on criminal charges for "breaking the law on religious organisations". The duty officer at the police station told Forum 18 News Service that Omarov was released by the police after several hours' detention in late June after signing "an undertaking not to leave the country". Forum 18 has also learnt that Pentecostal pastor Dmitry Shestakov from Andijan has fled Uzbekistan to escape criminal charges also lodged in June in retaliation for his church work. In Kuvasai in Fergana region, the NSS secret police have questioned the 11-year-old son of the Vitkovsky couple in whose home a Baptist church meets. The Church's services have repeatedly been raided in recent months and a judge threatened Viktor Vitkovsky with imprisonment on 27 June. He and his wife were due in court on 3 July.

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: Implementation the issue for OSCE – a survey

All Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) states are committed to "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief," recognising that this is a litmus test of the state of human rights. OSCE commitments to human rights have been reiterated and enhanced. Yet some OSCE states, especially in the eastern part of the OSCE region where Forum 18 News Service works, repeatedly break their commitments and attack religious freedom. Examples include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which commit persistent and even worsening religious freedom and other human rights violations. Forum 18 here surveys the situation. The question facing the OSCE is: How, concretely, are its repeated commitments to free, democratic, tolerant societies which respect human rights to be implemented, faced with states whose concrete actions directly contradict their commitments?

UZBEKISTAN: Religious literature censorship tightened

Uzbekistan has introduced new penalties for the "illegal" production, storage, import and distribution of all forms of religious literature. One Protestant told Forum 18 News Service that "all religious communities already need permission from the government's Religious Affairs Committee for each publication or import." Some Muslims stressed to Forum 18 that the changes merely gave a "legal" basis to what was already going on, one Muslim noting – as the authorities confirmed to Forum 18 – that since the crushing of the Andijan uprising, all imports of Muslim literature have halted. The chair of the state Religious Affairs Committee, Shoazim Minovarov, told Forum 18 that the "illegal" production and distribution of religious literature are "home-produced materials. In any state a publisher must receive a licence to conduct publishing activity and pay taxes." The changes are the latest in a series cracking down on activities the government does not totally control.

UZBEKISTAN: Another JW deportation, more pressure on Protestants and Muslims

Uzbekistan has deported a second Jehovah's Witness, a month after deporting a Russian lawyer intending to defend his fellow-believers, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Yevgeny Li's home is in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, but he was deported to Kazakhstan although he is Ukrainian. Also, Jamshed Fazylov, an Uzbek lawyer intending to defend Jehovah's Witnesses in southern Uzbekistan was himself detained in a cell for 24 hours for "vagrancy". "What happened to Li sets a very dangerous precedent," a Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18. "The authorities could launch a mass deportation of our fellow-believers." The use of deportation to rid the country of religious believers the state does not like seems to be growing. Other faiths are facing growing repression, Protestant sources telling Forum 18 that twelve churches have been stripped of registration, thus banning them from conducting any religious activity. Also, the authorities are attempting to stop Muslim schoolchildren from attending mosques.

UZBEKISTAN: "Very real" threat of Protestant pastor's arrest

Amid rising government persecution of Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious minorities in Uzbekistan, a Protestant pastor from Andijan [Andijon] faces up to twenty years' imprisonment if prosecutors go ahead with a trial for treason, Protestants have told Forum 18 News Service. Dmitry Shestakov, known as David, who leads a registered Full Gospel Pentecostal congregation in the city, has gone into hiding for fear of arrest. "It's unclear exactly which article I'm to be prosecuted under," he told Forum 18 from his place of hiding on 20 June, adding that he has learnt that the Prosecutor's Office might have changed the accusation to one of inciting religious hatred, which carries a five year maximum prison term. "The one thing I can say with certainty is that the threat of arrest is very real." An official of the Andijan regional Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18 that the number for the investigator in the case, Kamolitdin Zulfiev, is secret. Were Shestakov to be given a long prison term it would represent a major escalation of moves against religious minorities.

UZBEKISTAN: "We defend human rights"?

In what seems to be a widening crackdown against religious freedom in Uzbekistan, the police and NSS secret police have raided several churches and a Baptist has been fined for hosting services in her home. Yesterday (18 May), a group of Protestants in the capital Tashkent were detained following a police raid on a private flat. Humanitarian aid agencies suspected of involvement in Christian missionary activity are also being closed. Irmuhamad Shermatov, of the Justice Ministry's Department for the Defence of Human Rights, has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that "we defend human rights," but refused to say what the Ministry was doing to end attacks on religious freedom. A colleague of Shermatov's in central Uzbekistan told Forum 18 that the Justice Ministry has closed down two Protestant churches. She refused to say how in Uzbekistan church members could freely practice their faith, as the country's international human rights obligations require.

UZBEKISTAN: Devout Muslims or "Wahhabis"?

Trials of Muslims – apparently for seriously practicing Islam – are under way in Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. They have been accused of "Wahhabism" - a term widely and loosely used by the authorities to imply a Muslim they dislike. Surat Ikramov, of the Human Rights Initiative Group of Uzbekistan, has told Forum 18 that the cases are "a complete fabrication." Also, two of nine people deported from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan have been jailed for six years in a labour camp for links with exiled imam Obidkhon Nazarov, who is accused of being a Wahhabi leader. Nazarov told Forum 18 from exile that "my crime against President Karimov was only to take a stand against alcoholism and corruption and standing up for the rights of Muslim women." Shukhrat Ismailov of the state Religious Affairs Committee told Forum 18 that "Nazarov openly criticised our President and inflicted great harm on Uzbekistan," but could not say what harm had been caused.

UZBEKISTAN: One year on from Andijan

13 May 2006 is the first anniversary of the violent suppression of the Andijan uprising, which the OSCE thinks may have resulted in the deaths of between 300 and 500 people. Forum 18 News Service has been trying to establish whether these events have changed the religious freedom situation. It is hard to isolate Andijan-related events from the ongoing attack on human rights in Uzbekistan, but violations against the religious freedom of people of all faiths have clearly become worse. Much remains unknown about the Andijan events, including whether or not the Akramia group – which was at the centre of the events - is a peaceful religious group. Currently, Protestant Pastor Bakhtier Tuichiev describes the situation in Andijan as very tense. "Rumours are circulating that on 13 May demonstrations will be held." He told Forum 18 that police patrols have been stepped up and that many Muslims are being called in for "preventative talks" with the police and the NSS secret police.

UZBEKISTAN: Religious freedom survey, May 2006

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service finds that serious violations of religious freedom and other key human rights continue. Amongst many serious violations – which breach the country's international human rights commitments - in recent months have been: a complete ban on Protestant activity in north-west Uzbekistan, including threats to children to make them renounce Christianity; Muslim prisoners being barred from saying Muslim prayers; continuing police and NSS secret police raids on religious communities, especially Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses; massive increases in unregistered religious activity fines; use of interlocking laws and regulations to attack peaceful religious activity by all faiths; and the detention and deportation of Forum 18's Central Asia correspondent. The situation in Uzbekistan is bleak, and it is likely that violations of religious freedom and other key human rights may even become worse.