KAZAKHSTAN: Wider Plan to Suppress Unregistered Groups?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 16 May 2001

The move this month by the prosecutor of the town of Kulsary in Atyrau region to ban the activity of the unregistered Iman Baptist Church (see separate KNS article) came as prosecutors across Kazakhstan are increasingly trying to ban unregistered communities of a variety of faiths, despite the country's international commitments to freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. Keston News Service has received reports from a number of communities in different parts of the country of such pressure from judges, police officers and prosecutors.

Legal officials frequently use Article 375 part 1 of the Administrative Code, a hangover from the Soviet period which punishes those who refuse to register religious communities. Although the administrative code has been updated since independence in 1991, this provision - which violates Kazakhstan's international human rights commitments - remains.

The Iman Church was the second unregistered Christian house church to be closed down in Kulsary since the beginning of the year. The New Life Pentecostal church, led by Pastor Taraz Somalyak, was likewise deemed illegal, banned from meeting and at least one member fined, after neighbours reportedly complained that it was causing noise and disturbing their peace. Keston has been unable to contact Pastor Somalyak.

A 16 April report from the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists - which rejects registration on principle in all of the former Soviet republics where it operates - complained against the growing trend to pressure its congregations to register or close. It cited a warning issued by judge A. Aenov and prosecutor R. Jumagulova on 2 April to Pastor U. Rudenko in the city of Taldykorgan, 260 kilometres (165 miles) north east of the former capital Almaty, that he was violating the administrative code by leading an unregistered religious group.

The report also cited pressure on a Baptist church in Kyzylorda in central southern Kazakhstan. On 10 April judge S. Jappasbaev of Kyzylorda city court levied a fine of 7,750 tenge (US $53, DM 117,- or GB £37) on Valeri Pak for violating Article 375 part 1 of the administrative code. The court `suspended' the church's activity `until the elimination of the violation' - until it obtains registration - giving the church six months to obtain it.

The Kyzylorda church has already experienced police harassment this year. On 19 February a Kazakh-language service was raided by the police, who demanded that participants show their identity documents and write statements about the gathering. They confiscated all the Kazakh-language literature and a hymnbook and Bible in Russian, and took five of those present, including the leader of the service, Erlan Sarsenbaev, to the police station. According to the Baptists, police threatened them there, declaring: `During the Soviet times, believers like you were shot. Now you are feeling at peace, but we will show you.' When Sarsenbaev refused to write a statement, police officers `began to hit him on his neck and abdomen and head with a plastic bottle filled with water'. After telling them that he had recently recovered from meningitis, they stopped hitting his head. Forging his signature, police officers wrote the statement on his behalf.

Jehovah's Witnesses have told Keston that their communities have faced similar pressure to register - or, in the case of communities that have registration, court action to revoke it. The Kyzylorda regional court ruled on 14 March that the group's activities in the city of Kyzylorda should be suspended, complaining the local branch had functioned without local registration with the justice administration for the past two years (despite registration on a national level since January 1997). The ruling came despite a letter of 7 December last year from the Kyzylorda regional prosecutor's office confirming that under current law registration is not obligatory and that the constitution guarantees freedom to confess any faith alone or together with others. The prosecutor's office changed its mind and brought the action on 27 February to close the local branch. The court banned the group, ordered it to register and fined two of its leaders, Guljakhan Jarikova and Bakhyt Altaev.

The Jehovah's Witness community in Taraz in Jambul region is also subject to court action to close it down, although this time the Taraz city prosecutor K. D. Seitjanov is claiming that the faith violates the constitution by allegedly teaching disrespect for national symbols, refusal to serve in the military and cruel treatment of children. The hearing was suspended on 22 February for `experts' to examine the evidence. (END)