UZBEKISTAN: Will Jehovah's Witness Be Prosecuted?

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 21 May 2002

A Jehovah's Witness from the town of Bukhara, a regional centre about 500 kilometres (300 miles) west of Tashkent, could face up to five years in prison if prosecutors decide to go ahead and bring a criminal charge against him. The Bukhara regional procuracy is considering bringing the prosecution against Erken Khabibov, head of an unregistered Jehovah's Witness centre in the region, for leading an "illegal" religious group, Anatoli Melnik, a member of the presiding council of the Jehovah's Witnesses in neighbouring Kazakhstan (which oversees all Jehovah's Witness communities in Central Asia) told Keston News Service on 14 May. However, a local procuracy investigator has insisted to Keston that he has found no evidence meriting Khabibov's prosecution and that he has recommended to the regional procuracy that no case be brought.

Prosecutors are considering bringing the case under article 216 of the Uzbek Criminal Code, which prohibits the unlawful organisation of public or religious associations and carries a fine or up to five years in prison. Uzbekistan specifically declares that unregistered religious activity is illegal.

Speaking in Bukhara on 16 May, Khabibov told Keston that the authorities' current attempt to bring a criminal case against him is the latest in a long chain of state actions against his community. Last December, the police raided a private flat in the town of Kagan, 16 kilometres or 10 miles south of Bukhara, where Jehovah's Witnesses had gathered. When the police arrived, the Jehovah's Witnesses were eating plov, a traditional Central Asian dish made of rice, and the police could find no evidence that a religious meeting had indeed taken place. However, the police took down the names of all those who had gathered in the flat, and soon afterwards the participants in the meeting were sent a court summons. A court in Kagan sentenced the Jehovah's Witnesses to a fine on 18 January.

Khabibov told Keston that the court based its decision on the country's religion law, which forbids gatherings by unregistered religious organisations. "Let's note that this provision of the law contravenes international standards." But he maintained that in any case the court had no proof that the Jehovah's Witnesses had conducted a religious meeting. "When the police came in, we were simply eating plov and the police did not even manage to find any religious literature in the building." Khabibov reported that the Jehovah's Witnesses had appealed against the Kagan court's decision to the regional court. In response no. 24, the regional court sent a letter to the regional procuracy asking it to consider whether to bring a criminal case against Khabibov. "The regional procuracy in its turn has referred my case for an initial consideration by the procuracy of the town of Kagan," he reported.

"I have considered Erken Khabibov's case and I have not found anything of a criminal nature in his actions," Ibragim Bakayev, an investigator at the Kagan procuracy, told Keston on 17 May. "I have sent my findings to the regional procuracy, which will make the final decision."

However, Melnik remains suspicious. "What Bakayev told you was just words," he told Keston. "So far we have not received any official papers to inform us that no criminal case will be brought against Khabibov and so, for the time being at least, we cannot be sure that he is safe," Melnik told Keston by telephone from the Kazakh city of Almaty. (END)