KAZAKHSTAN: No Public Consultation On Religion Bill.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 17 December 2001

There was no public consultation prior to the presentation of a new draft religion law to the Kazakh parliament at the end of November, the mainly Protestant Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan (AROK) complained in a letter received by Keston News Service. "On 28 November we came up against the government's latest attempt to force Parliament to adopt a law that would encroach upon religious rights and freedoms in our country," AROK declared.

Kazakhstan's religion law was adopted on 15 January 1992, but there have been repeated attempts in recent years to amend it. Since the end of 1998, the government has developed five drafts of a new law, the latest being presented to parliament last March (see KNS 23 March 2001). That draft contained numerous discriminatory clauses about faith and age, and unlawfully restricted religious freedom. It proposed, for example, that both registration of Islamic religious associations and construction or opening of mosques should be only at the initiative of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan. It also raised the number of people required to form a religious association from 10, under the current law, to 50. It proposed making registration regulations more stringent: increasing the number of documents to be submitted for registration and introducing a requirement for analysis by an expert on religion.

The report "Threats to religious freedoms in Kazakhstan: legislation and practice", published by the Almaty Helsinki Committee in July 2001 noted two "innovations" in the draft law it deemed "offensive": the requirement to license religious educational activity and the ban on missionary activity that had not undergone an obligatory registration process, the nature of which was not defined by the law. The draft law nevertheless provided for criminal punishment for missionary activity conducted without registration (or after having infringed the rules on registration), extending to imprisonment for up to one year.

Although the draft law was recalled in August this year, after the intervention of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Kazakh public associations, the current draft law is practically a carbon copy of its precursor, the head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee Ninel Fokina told Keston by telephone on 12 December. True, the new draft does not consider charitable work to be missionary activity and consequently does not require it to be registered. Nor does it propose criminal punishment for missionary activity conducted without registration. However, all the other clauses that restrict the rights of believers have been retained in the new draft law. "Evidently, the authorities are making no secret of the fact that they intend to intensify the controls on believers," Fokina told Keston. "In the preamble to the draft law it is stated clearly that it is meant to limit the expansion of 'non-traditional' religious groups in Kazakhstan."

"We were unpleasantly surprised that the draft law was presented to parliament without initial public consultation," Birgit Kainz, human rights specialist at the OSCE bureau in Almaty, told Keston on 12 December. "In our opinion there is no need to formulate a new draft law. The existing law on freedom of conscience and of religious associations meets international legal standards and we have no problems with it."

The Almaty-based lawyer Roman Podoprigora, who specialises in religious matters, is of a somewhat different opinion. "The existing law on freedom of conscience and of religious associations was 'cribbed' from the Soviet law," he told Keston on 12 December. "Over the past ten years life has changed substantially and the law naturally needs some finishing touches. Whether the changes proposed in the current draft law are precisely the changes required is another matter." (END)