KAZAKHSTAN: Government Behind Newspaper's 'Libel' Campaign?

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 27 March 2002

Following publication of an article "abounding in unproven accusations" about the Hare Krishna community in Kazakhstan, the local Krishna Consciousness society is taking the "Kazakhstanskaya Pravda" newspaper to court, Bashir Damir Maratuly, the society's spokesman told Keston News Service by telephone from Almaty on 26 March. What concerned his community most of all, he said, was that they were "quite sure" that the article's author, journalist Natalya Martin, was "merely carrying out an order from certain circles within the government of Kazakhstan".

Although technically privately-owned, "Kazakhstanskaya Pravda" is in fact a government newspaper, Ninel Fokina, president of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, told Keston by telephone on 26 March. Over 90 per cent of the shares in the independent joint-stock company which owns the paper belong to the government. According to Fokina, the paper has, on government instructions, been conducting a campaign against religions that are non-traditional for Kazakhstan. "Martin's libel against the Hare Krishnas is yet another clear example of the Kazakh authorities' real attitude to freedom of conscience," she maintained.

Martin's article, published on 22 March, alleges that Kazakhstan has amended its religion law to counter the "threat" from non-traditional religions such as the "totalitarian" Hare Krishna. The author claims that members of the Hare Krishna community distribute free ritual food, videos and audio cassettes about meditation in order to recruit new members, without telling people that they are members of the Krishna community. Recalling the group's activities during the Nowruz spring holiday in the Kazakh capital, Astana, last year, she writes: "People in strange clothes, with unusual hairdos and painted faces attracted the attention of Astana residents in the main square where a fair was being held. 'Our mission is to feed the suffering,' they were saying, while distributing free food." Martin asserts that the Krishna devotees "kill two birds with one stone by spending very little money: they secure the image of a charity in people's minds and recruit lonely and socially vulnerable fellow citizens, many of whom have their own flats which many totalitarian sects are particularly interested in".

Maratuly was adamant in rejecting the paper's accusations. "Martin's article abounds in completely unproven accusations," he insisted. "We are not a totalitarian sect and we do not trade in the apartments of our fellow-believers. We have decided to take 'Kazakhstanskaya Pravda' to court and have no doubt that we will win." (END)