KAZAKHSTAN: Baptist Fined For Rejecting Church Registration.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 13 December 2001

Pavel Leonov, leader of the Baptist church in the town of Ayaguz in Eastern Kazakhstan region has been fined for refusing to register his church with the authorities. A 3 December statement from local Baptists, received by Keston News Service, reported that he was found guilty by the Ayaguz district court on 14 November under Article 362 part 1 of the criminal code and fined 25 financial units - 19,375 tenge (130 US dollars or 90 British pounds). The conflict between Leonov's congregation and the public prosecutor's office has been going on for more than a year (see KNS 12 November 2001). The congregation, which belongs to the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, believes it is a sin to register with the secular authorities.

The district public prosecutor's office has frequently demanded that Leonov register the church and, in the wake of his consistent refusal, the case was referred to court. On 21 September 2000 the court issued a ruling halting the church's activity until the church registered with the Ministry of Justice. The church rejected this ruling and continued to meet. On 13 October 2001 the public prosecutor of Ayaguz district, B. Eskermesov, brought a criminal case against Leonov under Article 362 part 1, which lays down that "deliberate obstruction of or failure to comply with a court sentence or other court order" may be punished by a fine, a period of community service or imprisonment for up to four months.

The hakim (head of administration) of Ayaguz district, Aibek Karimov, defended the judgment. "There is separation between the judicial, executive and legislative authorities, and so I will not interfere in the court decision," he told Keston by telephone on 12 December. "I can say just one thing: it is unlawful to hold services in an unregistered religious community." When Keston responded that the obligation to register a church is against international legal norms and that in this case the registration of a community by the secular authorities was against the convictions of the believers, Karimov responded: "We are governed by the laws of the republic of Kazakhstan and we cannot adjust them to the views of each and every believer."

Neither Kazakhstan's constitution nor the religion law specifies any obligation for religious groups to register. However, Article 375 of the administrative code makes a religious organisation that refuses to be registered legally liable. "The avoidance by leaders of religious associations of registering an association with the state government agencies, the existence of activity by a religious association that contradicts its aims and objectives as set out in its statute (provisions), involvement in party political activity, the organisation and conducting by ministers and members of religious associations of dedicated children's and young people's assemblies and groups that bear no relation to the performance of the cult and the coercion of citizens to carry out religious rituals or take part in any other religious activity, will entail a warning or a fine at a rate of up to 20 monthly financial units [a figure linked to the official minimum wage] for the leaders of the religious association, or at a rate of up to 100 monthly financial units for a juridical body, with or without an order to halt their activity for a period of up to six months or a ban on their activity."

It is this article of the administrative code that allows the authorities to prosecute believers who refuse to register religious communities. The head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, Ninel Fokina, argues that the authorities' reliance on article 375 is unlawful. "If an article of the administrative code contradicts the constitution and the religion law, it should be reviewed," she told Keston by telephone from Almaty on 12 December. "The constitution and the law on freedom of conscience and religious associations hold more authority than an article of the administrative code."

The Almaty-based lawyer Roman Podoprigora, who specialises in the activity of religious associations, is more cautious. "One can argue about whether article 375 contradicts international legal standards," he told Keston by telephone on 12 December. "But to maintain that it contradicts the constitution, you must first prove that the obligation to register infringes the rights of believers. Another consideration is whether the very word 'avoid' implies an obligation to register. Thus, a religious organisation may not get registered because its membership is less than that required for registration or because the believers are not in a position to pay the necessary registration fee." (END)