UZBEKISTAN: Charges Dropped Against Nine Baptists.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 29 June 2001

Administrative charges against nine members of an unregistered Baptist church in the Uzbek capital Tashkent were suddenly dropped today (29 June) following the intervention of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), Keston News Service has learnt. It had been expected that the nine - who were among church members questioned by the special police forces which raided the Bethany church during the Sunday service on 24 June (see KNS 27 June 2001) - would face fines of between ten and fifty times the minimum monthly wage. The church's pastor, Nikolai Shevchenko, is hopeful that the investigator leading the criminal case against him may also be about to drop the charges following telephone calls `from abroad' - apparently a reference to Keston's enquiries.

At a preliminary hearing on 26 June, the procurator declared that the nine church members would face fines 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'. However, on the morning of 29 June Pastor Shevchenko went to the CRA offices and met an official, Kamil Kamilov, who gave him a copy of a letter he had written to the judge declaring that the Bethany church was not an extremist, anti-constitutional and anti-state group.

Shevchenko took a copy of this letter, together with copies of letters he had written earlier to the Justice Ministry, the presidential office, the cabinet of ministers and the SNB (the former KGB) seeking registration for his church. Together with his lawyer and Pavel Peychev, the head of the Baptist Union - to which the church belongs - Shevchenko discussed the case of the nine with the procurator of Mirzo-Ulugbek district of Tashkent, Bakhtiyor Khaknazarov. He went off to consult with the judge due to hear the case and soon returned, informing them that the judge had dropped the charges against all nine and had closed the case.

Also on 29 June, Shevchenko met investigator Viktoriya Postavtseva of Mirzo-Ulugbek district department of internal affairs, who is leading the case against him under Article 216 of the criminal code (which carries a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment. `She told me she had now received different information about me,' Shevchenko told Keston from Tashkent on 29 June. `She also said she had got telephone calls from abroad about my case.' He believed this was a reference to Keston's inquiries. Although Keston has rung numerous times in an attempt to speak to her, those answering the telephone in her office have always said there was no-one there by that name or that she was not currently in the office.

Shevchenko stressed that what he is seeking is not just an end to the criminal case against him, but an end to the bureaucratic obstruction that has prevented his church from gaining registration for the past five years. `Tomorrow I will go to see Procurator Khaknazarov to give him an appeal asking the procuracy to revoke the decision of the mahalla [district administration] barring our church from registering, for which they gave no reason,' he told Keston. `Everything depends on registration - it is important that this moves forward. If we don't get it, even if they abandon the case against me they could still come round again to our church next week and start the whole process off again.' (END)