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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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TAJIKISTAN: Authorities concerned at publicity over Jehovah's Witness fines

Media interest in the case of two Jehovah's Witnesses fined for leading a religious meeting in Tursun-Zade raided by the police has provoked serious concern among the local authorities, Forum 18 News Service has learned. They had hoped the case against them – first reported by Forum 18 on 28 April and picked up by a local television station - would go unremarked by the outside world. "We hope the authorities will not take it out on us because our case has unexpectedly received such wide publicity," one of the two, Sukhrob Maksudov, told Forum 18. The Jehovah's Witnesses expect the Supreme Court to hear their appeal against the sentences in about a month's time.

TAJIKISTAN: Secrecy surrounds new draft religion law

Religious leaders know nothing about the amendments to Tajikistan's law on religion which officials expect to be adopted in the second half of the year. "We have only learnt about the proposed changes to the law from you," Said Negmatov of the Islamic Centre told Forum 18 News Service. "My main worry is that the draft law is being prepared behind the scenes without public discussion," Baptist pastor Aleksei Tsirulev declared. Said Akhmedov, chairman of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, told Forum 18 that under the new law, individual religious communities will need to present a list of 100 members to get registration. While Muslim, Russian Orthodox and Jehovah's Witness representatives said this would not be difficult for them, Tsirulev was concerned, warning that "this will mean that in many towns and villages our fellow believers will be deprived of the opportunity to observe religious rituals".

TAJIKISTAN: Jehovah's Witnesses to challenge fines in Supreme Court

Tajikistan's Jehovah's Witness community intends to appeal to the Supreme Court against fines imposed on two of its members on 24 April by a court in Tursun-Zade, a Jehovah's Witness who asked not to be identified told Forum 18 News Service. The two Jehovah's Witnesses, Grigori Putenkov and Sukhrob Maksudov, were fined for leading a religious meeting in a private flat raided by the police. The judge who handed down the fine, Davlatbek Zabirov, defended his decision, telling Forum 18 that Tajikistan's law on religion does not allow anyone to give religious instruction without a licence and that the administrative code sets out punishment for those who violate this provision. "Thus, when I pronounced the sentence, I was working strictly within the law."

CENTRAL ASIA: Only limited censorship of religious websites

Despite authoritarian rule, high levels of censorship of the local media and periodic barring of access to foreign-based political opposition websites, Central Asia's governments have so far only enacted limited censorship over access to religious websites based outside the region, a Forum 18 News Service investigation has found. Uzbekistan permanently bars access to the London-based website of Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, though not to its Pakistan-related site. In several Uzbek Internet cafes, Forum 18 even came across the notice: "Viewing of religious and pornographic sites is forbidden". But with low Internet use in Central Asia and a population too poor to be able to afford access, Central Asia's governments – which to a greater or lesser extent try to control all religious activity - may believe they do not need to impose religious censorship on the Internet.

CENTRAL ASIA: Fergana Valley responds to Iraq war

A week-long investigation by Forum 18 News Service across the Fergana valley – the most devoutly Muslim region of Central Asia that straddles Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – has revealed widespread popular hostility to the US war on Iraq, which one local called "a war of civilisations". Yet there was no evidence that this hostility to the war – which enjoys the tacit support of the Uzbek government – will lead to new instability in the Fergana valley. "While the situation will quickly become strained in the rest of the Muslim world, here everything will stay virtually unchanged," a local Muslim leader told Forum 18 in the Kyrgyz town of Osh. Even members of the banned Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir conceded that people are more concerned about surviving in the harsh economic climate than about their fellow-Muslims. "You must understand that our people are asleep," Uzbek Hizb ut-Tahrir members told Forum 18. "Even the co-operation between [Uzbek president]Islam Karimov and the US and the extermination of Iraqi Muslims have not awoken Uzbeks."

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