KAZAKHSTAN: Relief And Concern in Wake of Religion Law Ruling.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 15 April 2002

Tatyana Bulimenko, the responsible official at the legal department of the presidential administration, told Keston News Service from the Kazakh capital Astana on 11 April that President Nursultan Nazarbayev is not going to appeal against the Constitutional Council's decision that proposed amendments to the law on religion are at variance with the constitution (see KNS 8 April 2002). A number of human rights and religious figures have welcomed the decision, although some have told Keston that they fear the process of trying to amend the country's religion law could begin all over again.

According to Kazakh law, the president could have appealed against the decision of the Constitutional Council. In that case, the Constitutional Council's verdict could only have come into force if two thirds of the Constitutional Council had voted in its favour for a second time. Thus, at least for the time being, the previous law on religion remains in force.

If adopted, the amendments to the law would have allowed unregistered religious groups to be banned, required all missionaries to be registered and denied 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 in January, 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. Many provisions were also criticised by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Although the Constitutional Council made no comment on a number of provisions that would have violated Kazakhstan's international human rights commitments had the amendments been signed into law by the president, it did focus on three issues: the possibility to restrict through legislative acts the right to spread religious beliefs freely; the stipulation that Muslim organisations could only get state registration on the recommendation of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan; and the requirement that construction and opening of Muslim places of worship needed the permission of the Spiritual Administration. On the basis of these three points the Council ruled that the proposed amendments to the religion law violated the constitution.

The decision of the Constitutional Council was published in the Kazakh official newspaper Yuridicheskaya Gazeta on 11 April. The Kazakh newspaper Express-K had published a short digest of the Council's verdict on 5 April.

"The decision by Kazakhstan's president not to appeal against the Constitutional Council verdict is undoubtedly a welcome development," the president of the Protestant community Emmanuel, Roman Dudnik, told Keston by telephone from Almaty on 11 April. "A precedent has been set when, thanks to the intervention of public organisations, a draft law that had already been approved by both houses of parliament has been recognised as being in contravention of the constitution."

However, some commentators were sceptical as to whether this marked the end of attempts to amend the religion law. "For about a year believers can live in peace," the chair of the Almaty Helsinki group, Ninel Fokina, told Keston by telephone on 11 April. "I am sure that in time the authorities will launch a new campaign against believers. But for now we have a breathing space."

She reported that before the Constitutional Council issued its decision, local authorities interpreted the draft law on religion as already being in force, and had taken measures against "unwelcome" believers. Fokina cited the criminal punishment, in the form of a fine, handed down in January to Baptist pastor Pavel Leonov, who had refused to register his community. "That was the first time in Kazakhstan that a criminal sentence had been given for refusing registration," she noted. "Now we have been given the opportunity to defend the rights of believers."

"We welcome Nazarbayev's decision," Birgit Kainz, specialist on human rights at the OSCE's mission in Almaty, told Keston on 12 April. "And we hope that if a new draft law on religion is considered, international organisations will be more involved in the discussions. We also believe that the Constitutional Council has not exposed all the infringements of international legal standards contained in the amendments to the law on religion." She pointed out that, among other concerns, the Constitutional Council had ignored the increase in members required for a religious association to gain registration from 10 to 50. "And so, if a new law on religion is drawn up, it should not just take the present comments of the Constitutional Council into account."

Speaking off-the-record, members of several international organisations in Almaty remarked to Keston that this decision by the Constitutional Council and the president should not be interpreted too optimistically. According to Keston's sources, the Constitutional Council has taken several recent decisions that are doubtful in terms of international legal standards, and the decision on the religion law amendments might simply be an attempt to salvage its image. According to these observers, this concession to believers is simply a political manoeuvre, and the campaign against believers will soon be resumed. (END)