KAZAKHSTAN: Five-Day Prison Spell for Baptist Pastor.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 12 November 2001

A Baptist pastor, Valery Pak, fined last spring for refusing to register his church with the authorities, was punished in October with a five-day spell in prison, Keston News Service has learnt. Although Kazakhstan's religion law does not require religious groups to register to be allowed to function, prosecutors are increasingly relying on an article of the administrative code introduced last year which renders the activity of unregistered religious organisations liable to punishment. Two other Baptist pastors are known to be facing charges for leading unregistered churches.

All three Baptist churches belong to the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which has a policy of not seeking or accepting registration in all the former Soviet republics where it is active.

The city court in Kyzyl Orda fined Pastor Pak 7,700 tenge (50 dollars or 35 pounds) last spring for "evading the registration of a religious community" and ordered him to halt the church's activity for a period of up to six months. "Pak refused to pay the fine, out of disagreement with the authorities' decision, and the church continued to meet for worship," local Baptists reported. "On 9 October, judge S. Jallasbayev and Procurator I. Omatov decided (based on article 524 of the Administrative Code): for evading required regulations and the court decision, to subject Valery Pak to an arrest of five days, which he spent in the prison detention cell in the town of Kyzyl Orda."

On 8 November, Keston telephoned Terek Shotayev, the public prosecutor of the department for monitoring the activity of state agencies, at the public prosecutor's office in Kyzyl Orda region. Asked to comment on why Pastor Pak had been subjected to legal proceedings even though according to Kazakhstan's religion law the registration of religious associations was not compulsory, Shotayev responded: "It's true that, according to Kazakhstan's constitution and the law on freedom of conscience and religious associations, registration is not compulsory. The issue of state sanctions against religious communities that refuse to go through the registration process is constantly being raised by defenders of human rights. But we must not forget the complex situation in Kazakhstan, where religious extremists hold quite a strong position." He particularly referred to the "Wahhabis". Although technically this refers to the form of Islam found in Saudi Arabia, the term is widely used in Central Asia to decribe Islamic extremists, as well as Muslims who simply operate outside state control. "So we need to take measures against religious communities that refuse to go through the registration process. There are legal grounds for us to do so. Thus, for example, last year in Article 374 of the administrative code, a special amendment was introduced which stipulated that the activity of an unregistered religious organisation was legally accountable."

Local Baptists also reported that on 25 September the public prosecutor in Aktobe in north-western Kazakhstan, A.K. Saginbazarov, opened a case against Pastor Vasily Kliver under the administrative code "for persistent evasion by V. D. Kliver of the registration of a religious community". Kliver had been given an official warning for this on 30 May.

In a further case cited by local Baptists, a local official in the town of Ayagurz in the Eastern Kazakhstan region summoned Pastor Pavel Leonov to inform him that three days earlier the district public prosecutor, B.K. Eskermesov, had instituted a case against him under Article 362 part 1 of the criminal code for refusing to carry out a court order. This was the latest move in a long-running campaign initiated by the prosecutor's office to force the church to register. "After being summoned several times to the prosecutor's office, I was ordered to register the church," Leonov recalled. "We refused, and our case was forwarded to court. On 21 September 2000 the court issued a verdict: to halt the church's activity until the registration process is completed with the Ministry of Justice. We continued to assemble for worship, while the bailiff twice mailed us a warning letter."

"There is a campaign now under way in Kazakhstan to pursue unregistered religious associations," a specialist on the activity of religious associations, the Almaty-based lawyer Roman Podoprigora, told Keston by telephone on 8 November. Yet he did not want to dramatise the situation: "The authorities undertake this sort of action every couple of months. As soon as the investigation is concluded, the believers are left in peace until the next inspection."

However, several western experts, who asked to remain anonymous, were inclined to think that the current investigation into religious associations was not random, and that after the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States, the Kazakh government wanted to toughen up its policy towards believers.

"It's hard to say yet how the 11 September events in the US will affect the situation of believers in Kazakhstan," Birgit Kainz, human rights officer at the Almaty OSCE office, told Keston by telephone on 9 November. "So far, we have only heard about one example: the Kazakh authorities want to tighten up the existing religion law." (END)