UZBEKISTAN: Baptist Pastor Faces Eight-Year Sentence.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 5 July 2001

Just days after administrative charges against nine members of the unregistered Bethany Baptist church in the Uzbek capital Tashkent were suddenly dropped (see KNS 29 June 2001), the head of the local mahalla (district administration) has told the church's pastor Nikolai Shevchenko that he faces an eight-year prison term for leading the church. The investigator handling the criminal case against Shevchenko has declined to discuss how the investigation is proceeding. `The investigation is underway,' Viktoriya Postavtseva of Tashkent's Mirzo-Ulugbek district department of internal affairs told Keston News Service from Tashkent on 4 July, `but in the interests of the case I cannot give any information.' She referred all further enquiries to her boss, Yuri Borisov.

The case against Shevchenko under Article 216 of the criminal code (which punishes `organisation of banned social associations and religious organisations' and carries a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment) was launched in the wake of a raid on the church by special police forces during the Sunday morning service on 24 June. The authorities claim that because the church is unregistered its activity is illegal.

`When I went to the mahalla on 3 July,' Shevchenko told Keston from Tashkent the following day, `the mahalla chief tried to frighten me. He said I would get eight years' imprisonment.' It is not clear if the mahalla chief (whom Shevchenko declined to name) is pushing for further criminal charges to be instituted against Shevchenko, as five years' imprisonment is the maximum penalty under Article 216.

Shevchenko told Keston that he had gone to the mahalla to get their signature to acknowledge that he was bringing a suit in the Tashkent Economic Court challenging the mahalla's refusal to support the church's registration. `Registration needs the agreement of the mahalla,' Shevchenko declared, `but the mahalla refused, saying the church was "not necessary". We have decided to challenge this illegal refusal in court and I lodged the suit with the court today.'

Shevchenko's church - which is a member of the Baptist Union – has been seeking official registration in vain for five years. `Someone powerful - in the mahalla, the procuracy or the SNB [the Uzbek successor to the KGB] or somewhere else - is against our church,' Shevchenko claimed. He stressed that his church wishes to abide by the law and can see no reason why it has been denied registration. (END)