UZBEKISTAN: 'Mass Campaign' Against Jehovah's Witnesses?

by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 31 October 2002

Reached by Keston News Service as he was leading a raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting in a private home, a police officer refused to say why he was conducting the raid without a warrant. Keston has learnt that after the call he abandoned the raid and left behind the religious literature he had been planning to confiscate. But - as the criminal trial of Marat Mudarisov continues in the Uzbek capital Tashkent - Jehovah's Witness leaders fear a new "mass campaign" against them is now underway across Uzbekistan.

At around 9pm on 29 October six police officers entered a private apartment in the town of Navoi in north-west Uzbekistan where nine members of an unregistered Jehovah's Witness community were holding a meeting. Claiming to be conducting the raid as part of the battle against drug addiction, the police officers examined the Jehovah's Witnesses' arms looking for traces of injections. Having established that there were no drug addicts among the group, the police officers started to search the apartment. They gathered up all the religious literature they found and, accusing the Jehovah's Witnesses of holding an unlawful religious meeting, started to interrogate them.

However, during the interrogation Jehovah's Witness Rezeda Bekumalina managed to telephone Keston. "It was just an excuse to say that the raid was part of the battle against drug addiction," she complained. "On 7 October, I and another of my sisters in faith were sentenced by the Navoi city court to a fine under articles 240 (violating the law on religious organisations) and 241 (violating the procedure for religious instruction) of the administrative code. We were also warned that if we did not stop holding religious meetings we would face a lot of unpleasantness. Since then, we have been under surveillance."

Keston then spoke by telephone to the police officer leading the raid on the meeting, Bakhrudin Jurayev, but he refused to answer Keston's question as to why the search had been undertaken without the permission of the public prosecutor, as the law required. "I am not going to answer your questions on the telephone," he told Keston. "If you are really so bothered about the fate of the Jehovah's Witnesses, then come to Navoi."

Later that evening, Bekumalina told Keston that "after their conversation with you, the police really took fright at the turn of events and left, not staying to confiscate the religious literature". However, she remained pessimistic. "I am sure the authorities will not leave us in peace. They will try to deal with us again very soon."

On the same day, 29 October, a scheduled court hearing of the case against Marat Mudarisov took place at Tashkent's Akmal Ikram district court. He is being tried under article 156 (inciting national, racial or religious hatred) of the criminal code (see KNS 24 October 2002). The court again turned down the defence's repeated request that those present in court should be allowed to use audio and video equipment. The court did not take into account the defence argument that special audio and video recording equipment had been installed in the court building, funded by a grant from the United Kingdom, and that the British embassy had provided the money on the very condition that legal proceedings should be recorded. The judge, Sherzod Usmanov, admitted that video and audio equipment had indeed been installed in part of the court building with British Embassy funds, but claimed that "there is no audio and video equipment in the room in which the hearing into the Mudarisov case is taking place, and it is not expedient to use it".

A leading official of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Central Asia believes the Uzbek authorities have launched a "mass campaign" against his community throughout the country. "Literally every day we receive reports from all the regions about the arbitrary actions of the authorities," Anatoly Melnik, a member of the ruling committee of the Jehovah's Witnesses of neighbouring Kazakhstan (a committee that governs all Jehovah's Witness communities in Central Asia), told Keston in Tashkent on 29 November. "We do not have to go far for examples - just look at today's incident in Navoi. It seems that the authorities have now decided not to restrict themselves to administrative measures against our fellow-believers, but want to make them criminally accountable. Mudarisov's case is not unique."

He also pointed to the case brought against Eleonora Habibova and Svetlana Lipilina under article 244.1 of the criminal code (preparation or dissemination of documents containing a threat to public safety and social order) in the western Uzbek city of Bukhara (see KNS 27 September 2002). (END)