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UZBEKISTAN: Massive fine increases introduced

Fines for unregistered and hence illegal religious activity have been massively increased, from 5 to 10 times the minimum wage to 50 to 100 times the minimum wage, Forum 18 News Service has found. Uzbekistan bans all unregistered religious activity and places obstacles in the way of registration attempts, against the international human rights standards the country has freely agreed to. The steep rise in fines was introduced by changes to the Criminal and Administrative Codes brought in last month. So far, religious communities have not experienced any increase in fines but, after the launch of an intense campaign of inspections of religious activity in the capital Tashkent, religious minorities are worried. "Here in Uzbekistan, inspections of activity never happen just like that – generally their aim is to close down churches," a Baptist leader told Forum 18. "We are praying that the current inspections will not result in church closures."

UZBEKISTAN: Latest official harassment of Protestant students

Following the banning of Protestant activity in north-western Uzbekistan, a higher educational institute in the regional capital, Nukus, has resumed its harassment of Protestant students. Four female medical students came close to being expelled from their institute in the regional capital Nukus this month, and were removed from their student residence. However, the rector of the Nukus branch of the Tashkent Paediatric Medical Institute, Oral Ataniyazova, categorically denied that the four students were to be expelled, telling Forum 18 that "the only thing we are concerned about is the students' knowledge, certainly not their religious beliefs." Students at both the medical institute and the Berdah Karakalpak State University have long faced official hostility from university authorities due to their religious beliefs, at times at the behest of the National Security Service secret police. The only Christian activity permitted in the region is at the Russian Orthodox parish in Nukus.

CENTRAL ASIA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan close doors to UN Special Rapporteur

Officials of neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan have been able to explain to Forum 18 News Service why requests by Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, to visit both countries have gone unmet. Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told Forum 18 through an aide that he was "too busy" to reply to the question. Jahangir - a Pakistani lawyer who is at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in her own country - has called for a new mechanism to be created to deal with countries where there is serious concern for religious freedom, but which fail to cooperate with her requests to visit them. Although agreeing in principle to a visit, Russia has not set a date for one. Jahangir's next visit is due to be to Azerbaijan from 26 February to 6 March.

UZBEKISTAN: Senior Tashkent official denies "campaign" against religious believers

Despite launching a sweeping new crackdown on all aspects of religious life in the capital Tashkent – involving many state agencies checking up on religious leaders, the finances and activity of religious communities and the places where they meet – the Deputy Head of the city administration has vigorously denied that this is anything more than routine. "No special measures are being deployed," Anvar Ahmedov assured Forum 18 News Service. "There is no campaign against religious believers." But religious believers are worried, especially as the measures are also designed to halt all unregistered religious activity (which the authorities regard as illegal) and come on top of already tight controls. Officials "will control everything except our thoughts and our personal life," one Christian told Forum 18 from Tashkent.

TURKMENISTAN: Government severely restricts Haj numbers

Turkmenistan continues to limit haj pilgrimage numbers to fewer than five per cent of the potential pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has found, despite the requirement in Islam for able-bodied Muslims who can afford to do so to make the pilgrimage. This year, the Government is only allowing 188 pilgrims, despite an apparent quota from the Saudi authorities of more than 4,500 pilgrims. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from either the Turkmen Government or the Saudi authorities why the number of haj pilgrims is restricted. But Forum 18 has been told that "all those allowed to go are first checked out, presumably by the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of State Security secret police." At least one law-enforcement officer is said to accompany Turkmen pilgrims to Mecca. Unlike both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose government also imposes restrictions, other countries in the region do not restrict pilgrim numbers, but local Muslims often complain about the way the selection process operates.

UZBEKISTAN: Is interrogation and banning activity just "we simply chatted to him as friends"?

Ulugbek Taishmatov, of the Andijan regional Department of Internal Affairs, has denied pressuring Protestant pastor Bakhtier Tuichiev, despite interrogating him daily over four days and banning his church's activity. Taishmatov told Forum 18 News Service that "no-one has been questioning him; we simply chatted to him as friends. We don't have any intention of making trouble for him." Pastor Tuichiev is not reassured, stating that "he didn't talk to me in a friendly way at all. I remain very concerned for my safety." Tuichiev noted that he was questioned personally by Taishmatov from 9 o'clock in the morning until 6 o'clock in the evening over four days, and that Taishmatov forced him to write a statement that church members would not meet for religious gatherings. Pastor Tuichiev told Forum 18 that "I was afraid that if I did not write it, I would simply be arrested." Under Uzbek law – and against international human rights standards – unregistered religious activity is illegal.

UZBEKISTAN: "People are being sentenced for their beliefs"

Judge Alisher Jalilov, who sentenced two Jehovah's Witnesses to several days' detention and fined a further nine under Article 240 of the Administrative Code, has rejected Forum 18 News Service's suggestions that imprisonment is a harsh punishment in these circumstances. Religious believers prosecuted under Article 240 are normally fined, not jailed. Judge Jalilov also claimed that the defendants "did not have any lawyer at all and so I had to choose a defence lawyer myself." Andrei Shirobokov of the Jehovah's Witnesses has categorically rejected Jalilov's claim, stating that the defendants had asked to be represented by a lawyer they had chosen, but Jalilov refused this. "I am not at all surprised that Jalilov has denied the actual facts," Shirobokov told Forum 18. "This is the norm for state officials. They tell you one thing, and tell us completely the opposite." Shirobokov also stated to Forum 18 that "the believers' only 'crime' was that they met to talk about religious matters."

UZBEKISTAN: Mahalla and Mullah block Jehovah's Witness registration

The latest instance known to Forum 18 News Service of a religious minority being barred from gaining state registration – thus rendering its activity illegal – is a Jehovah's Witness community in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Following open hostility against the community from the head of the city's Yaksarai district, a subsequent meeting of local residents (the Mahalla committee), presided over by the local Mullah (Islamic clergyman), reversed a decision to allow a Jehovah's Witness congregation to apply for state registration. Under Uzbekistan's complex registration procedure, which institutionalises obstacles to religious minorities, the approval of both the Mahalla committee and the head of the district administration is necessary before a religious community can even apply for state registration from the Ministry of Justice. The Mahalla committees, theoretically independent but in practice under state control, are used to maintain controls over religious believers of all faiths.

UZBEKISTAN: Increased repression of religious minorities continues

Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses inside Uzbekistan have told Forum 18 News Service of ongoing post-Andijan uprising repression. Mahmud Karabaev, pastor of a Full Gospel Pentecostal church, faces up to three years in prison for "participation in the activity of an illegal religious organisation," following a joint police, NSS secret police and Public Prosecutor's office raid on his home. Latif Jalov of the Public Prosecutor's office refused categorically to confirm or deny to Forum 18 the charges, stating that "there is such a thing as a secret investigation." The church's lawyer, Iskander Najafov, believes the situation for Christians in Uzbekistan has worsened. "Instead of catching terrorists the authorities are persecuting Christians," he complained to Forum 18. Najafov's view of a nationwide crackdown is echoed by Andrei Shirobokov of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who told Forum 18 that the "facts suggest that the state's religious policies have become more severe since the Andijan events."

TURKMENISTAN: Hare Krishna devotee jailed for seven years

Turkmenistan has today [17 November] jailed a Hare Krishna devotee, Cheper Annaniyazova, for seven years on charges of illegally leaving the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Before being sentenced, she was compulsorily detained in a psychiatric hospital. "Cheper tried to get an exit visa to go to Kazakhstan to stay in the temple in Almaty, but was refused," a source close to the Hare Krishna community told Forum 18. "She went anyway, crossing the border to Uzbekistan." Despite a claimed abolition of exit visas, Turkmenistan is to Forum 18's knowledge preventing three religious believers - two Protestants and a Hare Krishna devotee – from leaving the country. Forum 18's source insists that the heavy sentence was imposed at the behest of the MSS secret police to intimidate the Hare Krishna community. Turkmenistan also has the religious prisoner of conscience with the longest jail sentence in the former Soviet Union, former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah who is on a 22 year jail sentence.

UZBEKISTAN: When is postal censorship not postal censorship?

Uzbekistan's Post Office routinely opens parcels of religious books and magazines sent from abroad, sends examples to the state Religious Affairs Committee, then collects them with a Committee decision as to whether or not to ban the title, writes to the sender and the failed recipient to explain why titles have been rejected, and (sometimes) returns them at Uzbek Post Office expense, Forum 18 News Service has found. Kural Tulebaev, Director of the main Post Office which receives foreign parcels, as well as customs officials have both denied that this is censorship. "We're just following the law," Tulebaev told Forum 18. His Customs Service colleagues were just as adamant: "The law requires that all of it is checked by the Religion Committee," a senior inspector told Forum 18, "the law is the law." The Religious Affairs Committee has refused to explain how it makes censorship decisions, or why it censors religious literature in defiance of international human rights commitments.

UZBEKISTAN: All Protestants "face persecution, whether registered or not"

"Harsh measures have been targeted at Christians," Forum 18 News Service has been told by a Protestant in Uzbekistan, with the authorities especially targeting ethnic Uzbek church members. "Unfortunately in Uzbekistan today there is no Protestant church that doesn't face persecution, whether registered or not,"Forum 18's source added. The latest cases known to Forum 18 are the Uzbek Supreme Court's confirmation of the banning of the Emmanuel Full Gospel Church in Nukus in the north-west, and the separate banning from meeting of the Fores Full Gospel Congregation in the capital Tashkent. All Protestant activity is illegal in north-west Uzbekistan, against international human rights standards. But the Emmanuel Church in the region intends to fight on for its right to meet legally. In Tashkent, a member of the Fores Church told Forum 18 that "Church members are tired and angry. They can't reconcile themselves to the illegal ban on practising their religious rights."