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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

TAJIKISTAN: Criminal cases against human rights defenders, relatives threatened

Exiled human rights defenders Anora Sarkorova and her husband Rustamjon Joniyev face criminal charges, and have been placed on Russia's Federal Wanted List. Officials have threatened relatives with arrests. Both have written about the regime's multiple serious violations of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, committed against Ismaili Muslims in Mountainous Badakhshan Region. "This will not break us, and we will continue reporting on human rights violations," Sarkorova told Forum 18. In Khujand police raided a Protestant Church and are questioning its members and leaders.

OCCUPIED UKRAINE: Priest killed within two days of Russian detention

On 15 February, the bruised body (possibly with a bullet-wound to the head) of 59-year-old Fr Stepan Podolchak of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was found in the streets of Kalanchak in Russian-occupied Kherson Region. The morgue called his wife to identify him. The occupation forces, who seized him two days earlier, "tortured Fr Stepan to death", says Kherson Bishop Nikodim. Forum 18 asked Kalanchak's Russian police what action they will take following his killing. "For a long time this [community] hasn't existed here and won't," the duty officer replied. "Forget about it."

RUSSIA: 42 on Federal Wanted List for exercising freedom of religion or belief

Russia's Interior Ministry Federal Wanted List includes: 3 opponents of Russia's war against Ukraine on religious grounds; 6 Muslim Nursi readers from Russia; 16 Jehovah's Witnesses from Russia, 4 from Russian-occupied Crimea; 3 people wanted by Belarus; 3 wanted by Kazakhstan; 2 wanted by Tajikistan; 5 wanted by Uzbekistan. The Interior Ministry did not respond to Forum 18's question why it includes people who peacefully exercised their right to freedom of religion or belief. Interpol would not say for how many of them Russia had sought Red Notices.

ARMENIA: Appeal court upholds conscientious objector's jail term

On 7 February, Yerevan's Criminal Court of Appeal rejected 20-year-old Baptist conscientious objector Davit Nazaretyan's appeal against a two-year jail term imposed in October 2023 for refusing military service. The judges ignored European Court of Human Rights judgments, including against Armenia. Nazaretyan's applications for alternative civilian service were repeatedly denied. He is considering a further appeal and will not be required to go to jail until any further appeal is heard. The last known jailed conscientious objector was freed in 2021.

OCCUPIED UKRAINE: "Disappeared" Greek Catholic priests in Russian Investigation Prisons?

One of two Greek Catholic priests Russian occupation forces seized in November 2022 in the Ukrainian city of Berdyansk appears to have been transferred illegally to Russia. Fr Ivan Levytsky is being held in Russia's Rostov Region, Evhen Zakharov of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group told Forum 18. Fr Bohdan Heleta is being held in Russian-occupied Crimea. Both priests appear to face Russian criminal charges related to weapons and explosives occupation forces claim they found. Relatives and the Church have been denied contact with the priests since November 2022.

RUSSIA: Another trial of Muslims meeting to study Nursi's works

Seven months after a Moscow court handed prison terms to six Muslims who met to study their faith using the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi, the same court is hearing the case of two more. 45-year-old Zurab Dzhabrailov and 53-year-old Dzheykhun Rustamov have so far made two court appearances. The two have been held at Butyrka prison since August 2023. Investigative Committee and FSB security service documents seen by Forum 18 reveal the investigation – which has involved covert surveillance - has been ongoing since 2017.

UZBEKISTAN: Muslim prayer rooms closed, Bukhara Baptists unable to meet

The regime has blocked Bukhara's registered Baptist Union Church from meeting since May 2021, but it hopes to be given a new building in 2024. "When we tried to rent other places to meet, we were refused," Baptists said. The Interior Ministry has closed public Muslim prayer rooms nationwide, using excuses such as escaped prisoners may use them. An Interior Ministry official could not explain to Forum 18 how Muslims who want to pray the five-times-a-day namaz prayers can pray if they are in public places.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Harsh" Religion Law changes to reach parliament soon?

A draft Amending Law (seen by Forum 18) amending nine Codes and Laws on the exercise of freedom of religion or belief would, if adopted in its current form, impose new restrictions on the exercise of freedom of religion or belief. The head of the NSC secret police, Yermek Sagimbayev, has told deputies of the non-freely-elected parliament: "The initiative on the need to harshen legislation in the area of regulating religious activity has more than once been discussed at a government level."