1 May 2015

RUSSIA: Jailed for exercising freedom of religion or belief in public

by Victoria Arnold, Forum 18 News Service

Baptist pastor Pavel Pilipchuk was imprisoned for five days in Orel in mid-April for refusing to pay a fine for allegedly organising an open-air meeting for worship without informing the city administration beforehand, church members told Forum 18 News Service. "Christian songs and conversations with people cannot be classified as rallies, pickets, marches and demonstrations," they insist. Religious communities whose beliefs require them to share their beliefs in public, beyond the confines of a place of worship, are particularly vulnerable to prosecution in Russia. Public processions with chanting constitute "one of the main forms of expression of the right of believers to act in accordance with their beliefs and the right to disseminate them", Hare Krishna lawyer Mikhail Frolov explained to Forum 18. Nine Jehovah's Witnesses and four Muslims are known to have been fined since the beginning of 2015 for holding public religious events. [read more...]

24 April 2015

UZBEKISTAN: Short-term jailings, fines and harassment

by Mushfig Bayram, Forum 18 News Service

Doniyor Akhmedov – a Baptist – was one of three Protestants in Uzbekistan known to have been imprisoned for between seven and 15 days in March and April. He was held after offering a religious leaflet to a passer-by on the street. For the last part of his 15-day imprisonment, Akhmedov "was held in a small cell with more than 10 people, where they were squeezed in and there was barely space to sleep on the floor", fellow Baptists complained to Forum 18 News Service. After he was freed he was summoned to court and fined more than three years' official minimum wage. Laziz Kurbonov, Deputy Chief of Ahangaran Police, refused to discuss Akhmedov's case with Forum 18. "I have hundreds of cases, I don't want to talk about this over the phone." Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses are frequently fined and occasionally given short-term prison sentences, but Muslims who exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief often face much harsher penalties, including long prison terms. [read more...]

21 April 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Baku's pre-Olympic Mosque closure?

by Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

Mubariz Qurbanli, Head of Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, visited the Lezgin Sunni Mosque in Baku's Old City at evening prayers on Friday 17 April to tell them they had three days to vacate the building. Qurbanli connected the demand to the European Olympic Games, which begin on 12 June. "We want fewer believers", mosque members quoted him to Forum 18 News Service as telling them. "If you don't go within three days we'll remove you by other means". At a meeting the following day, Qurbanli did not repeat the demand to leave immediately, but "openly stated that they want the Mosque to be closed for the European Games", Mosque members told Forum 18. "He didn't want people to be at our Mosque during it, claiming that the sight of bearded men will frighten Europeans". Officials of the State Committee and the Old City Reserve failed to respond to Forum 18's questions as to why officials want the Mosque to close for the Games. Officials of the National Olympic Committee and the Baku 2015 European Games Organising Committee told Forum 18 they had "no knowledge" of such plans. The authorities have long targeted the Lezgin Mosque and other Sunni mosques for enforced closure. [read more...]

17 April 2015

KAZAKHSTAN: Baptist facing three years jail for breaking state censorship?

by Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

A Baptist in Kazakhstan, Nikolai Novikov, could face up to three years in jail for refusing to pay a 2013 fine for offering religious literature which has not been censored by the state on the streets, Forum 18 News Service has learned. He has refused to pay that and other fines, as he states they are unjust. Prosecutor Aydin Rashidov insistently claimed that as Novikov’s “crime” was of what he described as “middling seriousness”, if convicted Novikov would not be imprisoned. However, Rashidov stated that he would have to live under restrictions – such as being subject to a curfew every night at his house - for up to three years. Novikov has pointed out that the prosecution is illegal under Kazakhstan's law. Meanwhile, administrative prosecutions to punish individuals for commercially distributing Muslim religious materials without state approval continue. And, apparently for the first time, the General Prosecutor’s Office has published a list of religious and other texts deemed “extremist” and whose production, import or distribution is banned. [read more...]

14 April 2015

UZBEKISTAN: "She fears police brutality during interrogation and administrative arrest"

by Mushfig Bayram, Forum 18 News Service

Nearly three years after losing her job as a teacher for insisting on wearing the hijab (Islamic headscarf), Gulchohra Norbayeva has faced police summonses, a house search for religious literature, accusations she was teaching the Koran “illegally”, and pressure to sign statements incriminating Muslim men she did not know. “At the moment they have left me alone. I don’t know if the Police opened a case,” she told Forum 18 News Service. An Anti-Terrorism Police Officer who took part in a raid on Norbayeva’s home insisted to Forum 18 that the search was for religious literature and that the case is now closed. Meanwhile, police have renewed their hunt for Guljahon Kuzebayeva, a Protestant in the southern Kashkadarya Region who has been in hiding since July 2014, for allegedly talking to family members about her Christian faith. “She fears police brutality during interrogation and also possible administrative arrest,” fellow Protestants told Forum 18. The use of informal physical violence and torture, or threats of this, by the authorities is widespread in Uzbekistan. [read more...]

9 April 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Transfer from detention for prisoners of conscience rejected

by Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

A request by a Jehovah's Witness prisoner of conscience, Valida Jabrayilova, to be transferred from pre-trial detention in the NSM secret police Investigation Prison to house arrest was refused on 4 April. Asked why she is detained and could face a five-year prison term for offering uncensored religious literature, Judge Elshad Shamayev replied "it's in the Criminal Code" to Forum 18 News Service. He refused to say why the government sees Jabrayilova – and seven other Muslim and Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience awaiting trial for exercising their freedom of religion or belief – as such a danger to the state that they must be detained by the NSM secret police. Asked why he also ordered Muslim prisoners of conscience to be held in pre-trial detention by the NSM, Judge Shamayev responded: "We're not obliged to account for our decisions". People continue to be prosecuted and punished for exercising freedom of religion or belief, for example in February for discussing their faith with others in public. [read more...]

1 April 2015

TAJIKISTAN: Hijab ban and state-written sermons "only a recommendation"?

by Mushfig Bayram, Forum 18 News Service

Women were being stopped at kindergartens in March to be told that they should not drop off their children while wearing a hijab, one source told Forum 18 News Service. "We have received so many phone calls during the last week from women in various places in Dushanbe and outside that they were stopped on the street by officials and warned that they must not wear the hijab," Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) told Forum 18. Despite this – and statements from Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon against women wearing "uncharacteristic" dress - a State Committee for Religious Affairs official claimed to Forum 18 that "no one ever banned the hijab or spoke against it". The same official denied to Forum 18 that imams were required to read state-produced sermons at Friday prayers, one before parliamentary elections backing the ruling party and one afterwards calling for the IRP to be closed down. Orders to imams to read out such sermons are "not compulsory but only a recommendation", the official also claimed. [read more...]

31 March 2015

RUSSIA: 65 known "extremist" religious literature cases in 2014

by Victoria Arnold, Forum 18 News Service

A total of 65 individuals and religious communities are known to have been prosecuted in 2014 across Russia for possession of allegedly "extremist" banned religious literature which does not appear to incite violence or hatred, Forum 18 News Service notes. Of these, 56 ended up with punishments. The cases were brought under Administrative Code Article 20.29 ("Production and distribution of extremist materials"), and all the cases related to the alleged possession of Muslim or Jehovah's Witness literature by individuals, religious communities, shopkeepers or stall holders. Courts continue in 2015 to rule Muslim and Jehovah's Witness literature "extremist", opening the way for more prosecutions. In 16 of the 65 known 2014 cases, courts ordered the religious literature to be destroyed. Prosecutors may use Article 20.29 convictions to seek to have a religious community forcibly dissolved. These 65 literature-related "extremism" cases are part of a wider pattern of investigations and prosecutions of people exercising their freedom of religion or belief. [read more...]