UZBEKISTAN: Baptist Pastor Threatened with Five-Year Sentence.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 27 June 2001

Following a raid by special police forces on an unregistered Baptist church in the Uzbek capital Tashkent last Sunday, 24 June, the pastor is facing a charge of leading an `unauthorised group', which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Pastor Nikolai Shevchenko of Bethany Church told Keston News Service that he was summoned to the procuracy of the city's Mirzo-Ulugbek district and a criminal case was officially opened on 26 June. Shevchenko has been seeking registration for his church for the past five years - in vain (see KNS 9 April 2001).

Shevchenko told Keston from Tashkent on 27 June that the investigation can last up to two months, and is being led by investigator Viktoriya Yevgeniyevna (surname unknown) of Mirzo-Ulugbek district department of internal affairs. She was not immediately available by telephone when Keston called on 27 June to enquire about the case. No-one was available at the Mirzo-Ulugbek procuracy on 27 June either. Shevchenko is not currently being held, but has been banned from travelling outside Tashkent.

The head of the Baptist Union, Pavel Peychev, wrote to various government agencies - including the Justice Ministry, the procuracy and the country's secret police, the SNB - on 25 June complaining of the `repressive' measures taken against the Bethany church, accusing the authorities of refusing it registration and then trying to crush it.

Protestant sources told Keston that the Sunday morning service was underway on 24 June when eight special police forces officers in civilian clothes arrived unannounced. The officers, who declined to give their names or rank, halted the service and separated the congregation into groups in different rooms at the church. Twelve of those present were interrogated, among them ten adults, Pastor Shevchenko, Aleksandr Razlivinsky, Valery Razlivinsky, Sergei Khripunov, Nikolai Nam, Viktor Nam, Aleksandr Gorelov, Sergei Yashchuk, Roman Kiselev and Aleksei Molokanov, and two children, Aleksei Tsoi and Mikhail Shevchenko.

`The officers said they had information that drug addicts were gathering there, but they found no drug addicts,' Shevchenko told Keston. `They brought handcuffs with them, but did not use them.'

Charges under Articles 240 and 241 of the administrative code - which punish `violation of legislation on religious organisations' and `violation of the procedure for teaching religious faith' - were levelled against nine of the adults, who were summoned to appear before the administrative commission on 26 June. The procurator recommended penalties of between 10 and 50 times the minimum monthly wage (currently 2,400 soms per month), but the judge postponed the hearing until 29 June and promised to try to soften the penalties.

Shevchenko was summoned by Bakhtiyor Khaknazarov of the Mirzo-Ulugbek procuracy on 25 June and was informed that a criminal case would be opened under Article 216, which punishes `organisation of banned social associations and religious organisations'. Khaknazarov told him he could face imprisonment of up to five years. `Khaknazarov spoke to me quite crudely,' Shevchenko told Keston. `I did not expect it.' He was not given anything to eat throughout the day, or allowed to leave for lunch. Late in the evening he told an officer that he suffers from diabetes, and his health could suffer if he did not eat for a protracted period. After that he was allowed to go home, with a requirement that he return the following morning.

Shevchenko rejected Khaknazarov's accusations that he had failed to register his church, pointing out that he had applied to all the relevant government agencies but had been refused, and had since then written to the presidential office and the government's committee for religious affairs seeking help in gaining registration. The letter to the presidential office had merely been handed over to the committee for religious affairs, and all his letters had elicited no response. The church's bookkeeper was also summoned with Shevchenko but was not charged with any criminal offence (although he was among those scheduled to be fined administratively). Shevchenko's lawyer also argues that his client should not face charges under Article 216 as his church cannot be considered an illegal organisation.

Pastor Shevchenko was the founder of an Association of Independent Churches, which united a dozen Protestant Churches in various towns across the country. However, he told Keston that his Tashkent church is once again a full member of the Baptist Union.

Uzbekistan treats unregistered religious activity as illegal, despite its international human rights commitments to allow freedom of religious practice and assembly, and the police often raid unregistered mosques and churches. (END)