KAZAKHSTAN: Draft Religion Law to be Revised?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 23 March 2001

A bill introducing substantial amendments to Kazakhstan's 1992 religion law (see KNS 19 February 2001) has been returned to the Ministry of Justice for revision in response to coordinated lobbying by the country's Protestants. Speaking to Keston News Service by telephone from the capital Astana on 21 March, consultant to the secretariat of the Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations (CRRO), Lyudmila Danilenko, said the draft was sent to the ministry for `reworking' last week.

Protestant objections to the bill, she maintained, had prompted its return to the ministry. Although she referred to repeated Protestant appeals to the authorities, Danilenko maintained that only one point of contention had resulted in the decision: `The Protestants needed to know they wouldn't be included in the definition of "religious sect". That is why it was returned.'

Speaking to Keston by telephone from the former capital Almaty on 21 March, OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) human dimension officer Birgit Kainz said she had received `no news' of the draft's progress since meetings with representatives of both chambers of parliament, the Ministry for Information, Culture and Public Accord and a government legal advisor on 6 and 7 March. A lower level official, however, had informed the OSCE that the draft had been changed, she said, `but we haven't received the new version'.

Danilenko denied that any new version existed, maintaining that the draft now under consideration was the same as that currently in the OSCE's possession. After revision by the Justice Ministry, she said, this draft would be sent to the government for consideration and comment after the current Novruz (New Year) holiday. The draft would then be passed to parliament at the end of March and a round table of representatives from religious organisations, ministries and state organs would discuss it in early April. Only then, assured Danilenko, would its adoption into law be considered by parliament. Kainz told Keston that a meeting to discuss the draft with representatives of the lower house of parliament was scheduled for 3 April.

Questioned further about the draft, Danilenko referred Keston to CRRO chairman Amanbek Mukhashov. Contacted by Keston the same day, however, Mukhashov declined to respond to questions by telephone, saying he would `think about' questions sent to him by fax. So far Keston has received no response to questions concerning the extent of revision to the draft and its possible publication faxed to him on 21 March.

In response to what they consider the `conditions of secrecy' surrounding the preparation of the bill, the Congress of Christian Protestants sent an appeal to President Nursultan Nazarbayev on 9 March demanding that progress on the current bill be halted and a wider circle of religious, academic, social and state representatives be allowed to participate in its preparation. This appeal was signed by delegates representing 250 religious associations who attended the Congress, held in Almaty on 9 March. It also voices concern at the authorities' `constant attempts to worsen legislation in the area of religious freedom', which, the delegates fear, is becoming `a victim of national security'.

The Congress' appeal is not the only large-scale recent attempt to make the bill public coordinated by Protestants. The president of Emmanuel Christian Society for Evangelisation and Charitable Activity, Roman Dudnik, told Keston on 12 March he was about to take to the authorities in Astana 6,500 signatures gathered in Almaty city and region as part of a nationwide petition to get the draft law published before its adoption: `They will have to respond to that.' Speaking to Keston on 21 March, however, Kainz was not aware of a response to the signature-gathering, while Danilenko was unsure whether the petition would necessarily result in publication. It was the norm, she explained, for draft laws relating to freedom of the person and human rights to be published, `but it is entirely up to parliament'.

On 2 March the Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion and Belief attached to the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) issued an extensive analysis of the draft amendments. The panel concludes that these `do not sufficiently target illegal activities which could properly be curbed under Kazakhstan's OSCE commitments and under international law' but instead `impermissibly target groups that are identified on the basis of their beliefs'. If adopted as currently drafted, the analysis declares, `the amendments will place significant burdens on individuals and groups who are not responsible for any illegal activities, thereby causing Kazakhstan to violate its OSCE commitments and to fall far short of compliance with international human rights standards.' (END)