UZBEKISTAN: Criminal Charges Against Baptist Pastor Dropped; Administrative Charges Remain.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 23 July 2001

The criminal charges brought against Nikolai Shevchenko, pastor of the Bethany Baptist church in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, have been dropped, although he still faces charges under the administrative code, the investigator in the criminal case told Keston News Service on 23 July. Viktoriya Postavtseva of Tashkent's Mirzo-Ulugbek district department of internal affairs said the charges 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) were dropped `for lack of substance of a crime'. Shevchenko had been accused of leading an `illegal' religious organisation despite the fact that his church has been seeking registration in vain for five years.

Despite the abandonment of the criminal case, Postavtseva stressed that `the case will be considered under the administrative code not as a crime but as a violation of the law'. She declined to say which article of the administrative code Shevchenko was being accused under, saying this was a matter for the Mirzo-Ulugbek administrative court, and declined to give any further information on the dropping of the criminal charges. `I have given you all the information I am able to about the case,' she declared.

Pastor Shevchenko told Keston on 23 July from Tashkent that Postavtseva had informed him on 19 July that the case was being handed over to the administrative court. She had indicated to him that he was being charged under administrative code Articles 240 and 241 (which punish `violation of legislation on religious organisations' and `violation of the procedure for teaching religious faith'). She asked him if he had been fined already and when he responded that he had been fined five months' minimum wages last year under Article 240, she said he would be fined again this year between five and ten times the minimum monthly wage. `It is certain it will be a minimum of ten times the monthly wage, maybe as high as fifty times,' Shevchenko told Keston.

He said the administrative case is being led by the deputy to the district prosecutor Bakhtiyor Khaknazarov, but he did not know his name.

The criminal case against Shevchenko was launched in the wake of a raid on the church by special police forces during the Sunday morning service on 24 June. Nine church members were also due to be sentenced on administrative charges, but these were dropped in a surprise move on 29 June after the intervention of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs (see KNS 29 June 2001).

The registration of Shevchenko's church - which is a member of the Baptist Union - has been blocked by the local mahalla (district administration), which has the power of veto over the registration of religious organisations based in its district. A meeting of the Citizens' Council of the mahalla, attended by 24 people, including 19 council members, voted on 9 January that `the activity of the Baptist religious organisation Bethany on the territory of the mahalla is not necessary'.

Shevchenko tried to challenge this ruling in the Economic Court, but the court refused to take the case, saying it should be heard in a civil court. He told Keston he would lodge the case at the Mirzo-Ulugbek civil court on 24 July.

Shevchenko expressed concern that unless the church gains registration, a church service could result in new criminal charges at any time. He stressed that his church wishes to abide by the law and can see no reason why it has been denied registration. (END)