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22 December 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Government attacks human rights defenders for criticising draft Law

As a law severely restricting freedom of religion and belief awaits Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's signature, Justice Ministry officials attacked local human rights groups for criticising the Law, accusing them of "openly lying." Denying that the Law will impose restrictions, Ministry officials claimed that "benevolent conditions" have been created for religious communities. The Law has been condemned by many religious leaders, such as Protestant leaders and Murat Telibekov of the Union of Muslims. Fr Vsevolod Chaplin of the Moscow Patriarchate pointed out to Forum 18 News Service that, under the proposed Law, "if a young person is walking past and goes into a mosque during prayers, the imam could be arrested." Fr Chaplin pointed out that he was himself a believer at the age of 13, against the wishes of his parents, which would be forbidden by the Law. Pope Benedict XVI has made an apparent oblique criticism of Kazakh policy. In a personal letter, he wrote to the Kazakh Ambassador to the Holy See that "it is incumbent upon the State to guarantee full religious freedom, but it also has the duty of learning to respect what is religious, avoiding interference in matters of faith and the conscience of the citizen."

19 December 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: "We will wait until after the New Year, and then seize his property"

Kazakhstan continues to actively violate its international human rights commitments, Forum 18 News Service has found. In the most recent of many known state actions against everyone's right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief, a Baptist is facing threats by the authorities to confiscate the major source of income for himself and his family because he led worship without state permission, the country's only Hare Krishna commune is still being pressured to accept a rubbish dump in exchange for their land, and Jehovah's Witnesses are still being denied the rights to use a private home and a Kingdom Hall they built for worship meetings. These human rights violations take place as President Nursultan Nazarbaev considers new legislation to even further restrict fundamental freedoms in the country. Among many other breaches of international human rights standards, the legal amendments would explicitly ban all unregistered religious activity. President Nazarbaev is formally due to sign or reject the amendments by around 2 January 2009.

12 December 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Secret police raid, film and investigate believers

A Protestant church's Sunday afternoon prayer meeting in the town of Aral in October was raided by police and KNB secret police without a warrant, church members told Forum 18 News Service. Officers filmed those present without their consent, summoned seven of them to the police station and tried to prosecute the leader, Indira Bukharbaeva, on administrative charges. But she was acquitted in December. Public Prosecutor Abdukarim Abdullaev told Forum 18 it was too sensitive to discuss by phone whether measures would be taken over the unauthorised filming of the church meeting. Meanwhile the KNB secret police in Taraz have lodged serious criminal charges against Protestant pastor Sarybai Tanabaev for "inciting religious intolerance" over two sermons he gave. One recording was confiscated from one church and the other apparently covertly made by the KNB secret police. The KNB secret police officer involved in the case, Major Mukhamedjan Paezov, told Forum 18 the case was initiated from the capital Astana and is being run from there.

26 November 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Restrictive amendments on religion go to President

Kazakhstan's parliament finally adopted today (26 November) a Law seriously restricting freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Immediate deep concern about the Law, which changes the Religion Law and other laws, was expressed by Kazakh human rights defenders and Lutheran, Hare Krishna, Baptist and Ahmadi Muslim representatives. "We expect persecution in the future because of this very harsh Law," Baptist Pastor Yaroslav Senyushkevich told Forum 18, "not just on us but on others too. It will be like under Stalin." More measured is Archbishop Tomasz Peta, who leads the Catholic diocese in Astana. "We hope that the President – who will have the last word on this – won't allow Kazakhstan after 17 years to return to the path of restrictions on religious freedom," he told Forum 18. Ambassador Janez Lenarcic of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) expressed disappointment at the "hasty" adoption of the Law. He added that he hopes President Nursultan Nazarbaev "will use his constitutional power to allow for a more transparent and inclusive law-making process that would lead to the adoption of legislation fully reflecting OSCE commitments and other international standards".

21 November 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Police "Struggle against Extremism, Separatism and Terrorism" - and restaurant meals

Police from the Department for the Struggle against Extremism, Separatism, and Terrorism have raided a church anniversary meal, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The raid, in Kazakhstan's north-western city of Aktobe, happened while a video was being shown at a celebration meal in a restaurant. Police broke up the meal and demanded to know why people from outside the city were present. Aktobe's deputy police chief, Navruzbai Kadyrkozhaev, evaded answering why anti-terrorist police raided a church meal, and claimed that police "check organisations since there are so many dangerous sects, faith healers, etc." In the long-running struggle of Kazakhstan's Hare Krishna commune to prevent more of their buildings being destroyed, a court has found that the commune's buildings had been constructed and were used lawfully. However, the case is due to continue on 25 November. Also, Kazakh officials are still claiming that an OSCE legislative review of proposed harsh new restrictions on freedom of religion or belief cannot be made public at the request of the OSCE. However, as Ambassador Janez Lenarcic, Director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said today (21 November) "the ODIHR would welcome the publication of the legal review".

18 November 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: New Law still in parliament and harshened

Kazakhstan's Senate has significantly harshened the draft Law amending several laws on religion, before returning it to the Majilis, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Officials are still refusing to make the draft text public, but Forum 18 has seen the latest changes. Among the increased restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience or belief, the Senate changed the draft text to require permission from both parents for children to attend any religious event, and removed judges' discretion over the level of fines imposed for violating the Religion Law. The draft Law already contains many restrictions, including only allowing religious literature distribution in permanent buildings designated by the state, and possibly endangering religious-based charitable activities. Kazakhstan has also not agreed to publication of an OSCE review of an earlier text of the Law, although the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights told Forum 18 that it "has recommended to the Kazakh authorities that the legal review be made public, as is normal practice." Kazakh officials have refused to say when the Majilis will discuss the Senate changes, but Forum 18 has learned that this will be on 24 November – the same day a roundtable with OSCE experts is scheduled to begin.

28 October 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Community punishment, denial of registration and temple under threat

A court in Akmola Region has punished Baptist pastor Andrei Blok with 150 hours' compulsory labour for refusing to pay fines imposed to punish him for leading unregistered worship, according to the verdict seen by Forum 18 News Service. "If not for many telephone calls to the court and city officials from around the world Andrei could have been put into prison for several months," his family told Forum 18. Yuliya Merkel of the local Justice Department insisted to Forum 18 that Blok "needs" to register his church, and refused to say what would happen if the church continues to worship without registration. A Jehovah's Witness community in the Caspian port city of Atyrau is preparing to complain in court against the Atyrau Justice Department, which has rejected its eighth registration application in seven years. Meanwhile Karasai District Court in Almaty Region on 28 October resumed the twice-postponed hearing over the demolition of the only Hare Krishna temple in Kazakhstan. The next hearing is due on 3 November. "But we already saw the first signs that the court is trying to get a decision against us at any cost," a Hare Krishna devotee told Forum 18.

14 October 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: New punishments for unapproved religious activity in controversial draft Law

Kazakhstan's controversial amendments to various laws affecting religion or belief reached the Senate on 29 September after being approved by parliament's lower house and are now with the Senate's Committee for Social and Cultural Development. Committee chairman Akhan Bizhanov three times refused to tell Forum 18 News Service whether the new Law aims to increase state controls on the activity of religious communities and individuals. The text of the Law as approved by the lower house – and seen by Forum 18 – would for the first time explicitly ban unregistered religious activity, ban sharing beliefs by individuals not named by registered religious organisations and without personal registration as missionaries, require all registration applications to be approved centrally after a "religious expert assessment" of each community's doctrines and history, and impose a wider range of fines on individuals and communities and bans on religious communities who, for example, conduct activity not specifically mentioned in their charter. Groups without full registration would not be able to maintain publicly-accessible places of worship.

10 October 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: "Only the President can stop the demolition"

The remaining parts of Kazakhstan's only Hare Krishna commune are threatened by a court case due to begin on Monday 13 October, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Karasai Akimat (administration) has brought a case to seize the buildings on the commune – which include a temple – and demolish them. Aysara Uglanova of Karasai District Court stated that "the case is about whether or not to demolish the buildings on the farm." Told that one of the buildings is the only Hare Krishna temple in Kazakhstan, Uglanova responded: "Now only the President of the country could stop the process of demolition. Let them write to the President," she advised. Maksim Varfolomeev of the Hare Krishna community stressed to Forum 18 that the temple is the valid registered legal address for the religious community, and fears that the community could be stripped of state registration if the address is demolished. Kazakh officials often insist - wrongly - that unregistered religious activity is banned in the country. A court case against a Baptist, Andrei Blok, for unregistered activity has been postponed.

6 October 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Months in prison for leading unregistered worship?

If convicted at his trial due on 9 October in the northern town of Esil, Baptist pastor Andrei Blok could face up to four months' imprisonment. He is being tried for refusing to pay an earlier fine for leading his unregistered church, part of what local Council of Churches Baptists describe as the authorities' "economic war" against them. Local Baptists told Forum 18 News Service Blok considered the fine "unfounded and illegal". The town police chief admitted to Forum 18 Blok is being prosecuted because of his unregistered religious activity. In mid-September another Baptist pastor Aleksandr Kerker was given his second massive fine for leading unregistered worship, amid moves to seize his land and two cows for failure to pay his first fine. "The Baptists still go on holding their meetings - no one is really pressuring them," the judge who rejected Kerker's appeal told Forum 18. In the southern city of Shymkent, officials raided the Protestant New Life church's Sunday morning worship service. Like other religious leaders the pastor was forced to fill out an intrusive questionnaire asking about the ethnic composition of his community. One official accused the pastor of "corrupting Kazakh nationals to change their religion".

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