UZBEKISTAN: Five-Day Prison Term for Jehovah's Witnesses.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 25 April 2002

Police conducted raids on three Jehovah's Witness meetings held in private flats in two Uzbek towns on 28 March, the day the Jehovah's Witnesses mark their only annual feast commemorating Christ's death. Jehovah's Witness sources have told Keston News Service in the Uzbek capital Tashkent that a number of those attending the meetings were fined and three were sentenced to five days' imprisonment. "The reason they gave for the harsh action was that these communities were not registered," a member of the presiding council of Jehovah's Witnesses of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Anatoli Melnik, told Keston in Tashkent on 19 April.

On 28 March police burst into a private flat belonging to Viktor Starodubtsev in the town of Takhiatash, a suburb of the city of Nukus, capital of the Karakalpakstan autonomous region of north-western Uzbekistan. Police searched the flat for religious literature. On 31 March all those who had gathered in Starodubtsev's flat on 28 March were summoned to the Takhiatash town court. The court pronounced the meeting in Starodubtsev's flat an "unlawful religious gathering" and fined its participants between 17,150 and 20,580 sums (12 to 15 US dollars or 8 to 10 British pounds at the street exchange rate).

The police carried out similar raids on 28 March on two Jehovah's Witness meetings in Tashkent. According to a court decision on 13 April, Jehovah's Witnesses who had gathered at Andrei Chebykin's flat were fined between 1,000 and 11,875 sums. Harsher treatment was meted out to those who took part in a separate meeting in the city's Sergalin district. Three participants, Vladimir Ovsyanikov, Irina Ovsyanikova and Shukurullo Nurakhunov, were subsequently sentenced to five days' detention. They had tried in vain to prove to the court that their meeting had been legal.

Melnik pointed out that Uzbekistan's religion law declares that "religious organisations will assume the status of juridical persons and may pursue their activities after being registered with the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan or with its local agencies", but claims that under Uzbekistan's international human rights commitments the state cannot require believers to have registration before being able to meet for worship. "That legal provision is at odds with international standards. But regardless of that, a private meeting of Jehovah's Witnesses is not even against Uzbek law. It is impossible to ban people from praying to God."

However, the deputy chairman of Uzbekistan's Committee for Religious Affairs, Shoazim Minovarov, dismissed the raids and fines. "We have not received any complaint from the Jehovah's Witnesses, and so it is difficult for me to pass comment on the police raids and the subsequent court decisions," he told Keston by telephone on 20 April. "But I am sure that both the police actions and the court decisions were legitimate." (END)