KAZAKHSTAN: No Registration? No Book Distribution!

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 22 January 2001

Local police detained two women for selling Hare Krishna literature on the streets of the north western Kazakh town of Aktobe, claiming this was illegal as the group did not have registration with the regional justice department. Yermek Tauanov, deputy head of the regional department for work with religious organisations, insisted to Keston News Service that Kazakh law requires religious groups to have registration before they can conduct any activity, despite the fact that this is nowhere stated in law.

The problems encountered by the Hare Krishna devotees are symptomatic of increasing pressure on religious communities that do not have registration. Officials repeatedly claim that existing law requires such registration. Baptists affiliated with the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists - who refuse to register on principle in any of the post-Soviet republics - have faced particular pressure. Three of their communities in Kazakhstan were warned last year that their activity was illegal, most recently in the town of Stepnogorsk in October (see KNS 2 November 2000).

The two Hare Krishna devotees - whose names have not been released by the local police but who were reportedly aged 20 and 17 – were detained in Aktobe on 15 December after they were found selling Krishna books on the streets for 100 tenge (65 US cents) each. Police were called and they were detained, and 20 books were confiscated. They were due to be taken to the police holding centre, but were freed when the police `took pity on them', Tauanov told Keston from Aktobe on 19 January. `We had every right to send them to prison, but we let them go.' He confirmed he had been brought in to speak to the two women, but declined to tell Keston how his office had become involved. `We don't comment on the way our law enforcement organs operate.' He refused to explain why the books had been confiscated.

Tauanov claimed the two had arrived from the country's commercial capital Almaty by train without any identity documents - which he said was illegal - and that they had been selling the books on the streets without a licence from the Aktobe tax office (which he said cost approximately 20 tenge). Asked whether the devotees would be able to distribute their books on the streets next time if they brought their identity papers and bought a licence, he responded: `No. The Krishnaites do not have registration in the region here. All religious organisations which function must have registration.' Asked by Keston to name which law spelled out such a requirement, Tauanov referred to instructions issued last year by the procurator general for a nationwide inspection of all religious organisations to make sure they were functioning with registration. Challenged again to name a law which made registration compulsory, Tauanov was unable to do so.

Krishnabalaram, the president of the Hare Krishna temple in Almaty (which has official registration), told Keston on 19 January that he was not familiar with the Aktobe case, but confirmed that the group does not have registration there. However, he contested the idea that the group needed registration to be able to distribute literature. `Many local officials don't know the laws and demand all kinds of certificates and permissions.' He cited a case last autumn in the town of Chimkent in southern Kazakhstan, where five devotees had been `persecuted and beaten' by the police for distributing literature on the streets. `They were lucky to have been able to get away.' However, he stressed that there were many other places where the group is able to distribute books on the streets `without problems'.

 `We try here in Aktyubinsk region to ensure that everyone obeys the law,' Tauanov declared, referring with disdain to the `disorder' in South Kazakhstan region. `Last year the procurator general checked up on the registration situation in South Kazakhstan region. He discovered that of 600 religious organisations, more than 300 were functioning without registration.'

Believers of many different faiths are concerned by plans to amend the country's religion law. Although three drafts are currently being circulated, observers believe the final version will include a requirement for all religious groups to register in order to function, although this would conflict with Kazakhstan's international human rights obligations. `The bureaucrats are not moving on two points,' Ninel Fokina, chair of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, told Keston on 18 January. `Registration will be made compulsory and foreign missionaries will be banned.' (END)