KAZAKHSTAN: Pentecostal Church 'Illegally' Barred from Visiting Prison.

Igor Rotar and Daur Dosybiyev, Keston News Service, 15 July 2002

Officials of Kazakhstan's prison system have refused members of a Pentecostal church in the south of the country access to local prison camps on the grounds that one of their preachers is a former prisoner, despite requests for such visits from prisoners themselves. Officials of the South Kazakhstan region have told Keston News Service they believe the ban is unlawful, but they are unable to overrule the decision.

The leadership of the Committee for the Criminal Corrective System wrote to the Christian Full Gospel Church in the town of Lenger in June setting out the ban. "Your request No. 20 for permission to hold services in corrective institutions in South Kazakhstan region has been considered and has not been granted," wrote Committee chairman P. Posmakov, "because there is an individual among your preachers who has previously served a sentence in institutions of the Administration of the Corrective System in South Kazakhstan region, who showed himself in a negative light at the time he was serving his sentence."

One of the church's most active members is Aleksandr Karimov, who has stood trial many times in the past and used to be a long-term drug addict. Since joining the church, he has turned his back on what he calls his "former life". Six residents of Lenger, which has the worst incidence in the region of drug addiction and Aids, have given up taking drugs after speaking to him. "The prisoners themselves asked me to preach in the prisons. I have a letter signed by around 30 prisoners," Karimov told Keston by telephone on 10 July. "The fact is that when I left prison I had an advanced form of tuberculosis, and everyone thought that I was going to die. Many people interpret my recovery as a miracle. And people who remember me in prison want me to tell them how I managed to save myself."

The chief doctor of the centre for socio-medical rehabilitation for South Kazakhstan region, Sakena Pakiyeva, maintains that the church succeeds in achieving what the prison system cannot. Speaking to Keston on 15 June in Chimkent, the regional centre of South Kazakhstan region, she reported that "corrective" separation of drug addicts from the object of their desire is seen as a great success in the system.

The regional authorities also believe, or at least claim to believe, that the ban imposed by the leadership of the Committee for the Criminal Corrective System is unlawful. Vladimir Zharinov, chief specialist at the department for relations with public and religious organisations in the regional department for youth issues and internal policy, said that in Karimov's case the rights of believers were being infringed and that a number of laws were being broken. "If a person has served his sentence, then he has expiated his crime," Zharinov told Keston in Chimkent on 16 June. However, he admitted that the regional authorities were not in a position to influence the Committee's decision, and that consequently the church's preachers would still not be allowed into prison camps.

"I am astonished at your story about Karimov. In Kazakhstan prisoners are free to perform religious rituals. Preachers may visit places of detention and associate with believers," the deputy chairman of the committee for relations with religious organisations, Amanbek Mukhashov, told Keston by telephone from the capital Astana on 10 July. "It seems to me that Karimov's case is a simple misunderstanding that will be resolved shortly."

Bakhtar Isabayev, chief specialist at the legal department of the Committee for the Criminal Corrective System, was less categorical. "Churches do indeed operate within Kazakh reform institutions and prisoners are free to perform religious rituals," he told Keston by telephone on 10 July. "However, it does not follow that any preacher may freely associate with prisoners. A church community must write us a declaration with a request for permission to preach in places of detention. After that, we look into what sort of community it is and what its aims are and only then make a decision. Moreover, in the first instance we take into account the opinion of our colleagues from that region and in the prisons where the community members intend to preach." At the same time, Isabayev admitted that from a legal point of view it was irrelevant whether a preacher had a conviction, and how he had behaved in places of detention. (END)