KAZAKHSTAN: President to Sign Religion law 'Within Two Weeks'.

Felix Corley and Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 22 February 2002

President Nursultan Nazarbayev has not yet signed the controversial religion law approved by parliament at the end of January, but will do so "within the next two weeks", a source in the presidential administration in the capital Astana declared unofficially today (22 February). Keston News Service's earlier attempts to establish the current status of the law had been unsuccessful as the whole process has been shrouded in secrecy. "The president declared the religion law to be 'urgent' in a letter to parliament in mid-January," one non-governmental source who preferred not to be named told Keston on 22 February. "On all such 'urgent' laws - like the media law last March - there is no transparency and the law is adopted very quickly in secrecy."

The religion law was approved by the lower house of parliament on 17 January and by the upper house on 31 January, but comes into force only on the president's signature and the law's publication. Once signed, the controversial law will allow unregistered religious groups to be banned, require all missionaries to be registered and deny legal registration to all Muslim organisations outside the framework of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan. In its survey of opinion among religious communities last month, Keston found that only the Spiritual Administration offered unequivocal support for the new law, while a range of faiths strongly criticised many of its provisions (see KNS 1 February 2002). Many provisions have also been criticised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Amid the secrecy, rumours have abounded that Nazarbayev has already signed the law. The chair of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, Ninel Fokina, assured Keston by telephone on 21 February that her sources had learnt that the president had already signed and that the law would soon be published in newspapers.

Keston was unsuccessful on 21 February when it tried to verify the law's current status with the authorities. Contacted by telephone in Astana, Amanbek Mukhashev, chairman of the government's Council for Relations with Religious Organisations, told Keston that he had "no information" on whether the president had signed or not. Also unable to confirm or deny this was the responsible official of the legal department of the presidential administration Batarbek Idjanov. Stranger still was the response of the presidential administration's press office. The official who answered the telephone categorically refused to give his name and said he "did not have information" on whether the president had signed the law or not. (END)