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April a Difficult Month for Christians in Uzbekistan

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April a Difficult Month for Christians in Uzbekistan

April saw an upsurge in raids, literature confiscations and heavy fines – as well as court-ordered literature destruction – to punish Protestants in Uzbekistan’s capital of Tashkent.

Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country in Central Asia. It shares borders with Kazakhstan to the west and to the north, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the east, and Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to the south. Prior to 1991, it was part of the Soviet Union

Reporting for the Forum 18 News Service, Mushfig Bayram said that in the wake of an April 5 raid on his home, Protestant Anvar Rajapov was fined 80 times the minimum monthly wage (2,330 US Dollars at the inflated official exchange rate), while the judge ordered that the vast majority of the religious literature confiscated from him be destroyed.

A registered Baptist church in Tashkent – twice raided in early April – had four members given massive fines.

In late April, a large fine was levied on the church after tax authorities alleged it failed to use a cash register to record sales and donations. Officials told Forum 18 that one church member, Konstantin Malchikovsky, now faces criminal prosecution with a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.

Forum 18 said Uzbekistan’s authorities keep all religious communities under very tight control and surveillance. In a breach of the country’s international human rights obligations, all unregistered religious activity is illegal. All religious literature is subject to mandatory prior state censorship.

Possibly fueled by authorities’ concerns about the impact of the Arab spring uprisings for freedom, Forum 18 said three Tashkent Muslim clerics who studied in Arab countries were dismissed from their posts in February and March.

Fine follows raid

Forum 18 said the news service was told by Protestants that the administrative case and fine against Rajapov followed the April 5 raid on his Tashkent home by up to ten police and National Security Service (NSS) secret police officers.

Local Protestants told Forum 18 that Ulmas Shukurov, head of the Rakat mahalla (city district) committee, had called for Rajapov to be harshly punished and expelled from the mahalla “because he had left Islam and accepted Christianity.”

Forum 18 said Mahalla committees, the lowest level of administration in Uzbekistan, are used by the authorities as a key instrument in their attempts to control society.

During the raid, police confiscated about 250 religious books and recordings, including Bibles, as well as a computer and Rajapov’s passport. One officer took photographs of Rajapov’s children without his knowledge.

Forum 18 said the books were then sent to the government’s Religious Affairs Committee for an “expert analysis.” Such alleged “expert analyses” are routinely used as an excuse to confiscate any book the authorities decide to confiscate. A very strict censorship regime is applied against religious literature and other material of all faiths.

Authorities declined comment to Forum 18.

“The whole case is fabricated”

Protestants who know Rajapov, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, complained to Forum 18 that “the whole case is fabricated.”

They said that the authorities did not reveal any religious meetings in Rajapov’s home during an earlier raid, but “only authorised religious literature.” They added that Rajapov does not conduct religious meetings or teach religion in his home.

“There is no evidence” for the charges brought against Rajapov, and the Court “did not prove any of it,” they told Forum 18.

Protestants told Forum 18 that Judge Berdykilichev did not “even investigate the case, but just signed the hastily and carelessly prepared decision.” They pointed out – as verified by Forum 18 – that in one of the paragraphs, among many errors in the verdict, the defendant’s name (Rajapov) is indicated as Ahmedov.

Officials of Yakkasaray Court refused to comment on the case.

Attacked through the media

Forum 18 said on May 3, the independent Moscow-based website Centrasia.ru published an attack on Rajapov, written by someone identified as Ikrom Umarov. The article accused Rajapov, described as “one of the well-known leaders of the proselytizing group Iso Masih,” of spreading “ideological opium.”

Forum 18 said it praised the “vigilance of the local law-enforcement agencies” for catching him, and claimed he “will have to answer before the law” (the author does not mention the trial that had already taken place). The information in the article was widely picked up by other Russian-language news agencies.

Although the article does not appear to have been originally published by a state-run media outlet in Uzbekistan, Forum 18 said it is written in a similar tone to many previous such attacks. In March 2010, Anvar Rajapov and his brother Azamat were attacked in an article published by the government-sponsored Press-uz.info news agency. One month later, Azamat Rajapov was given a 15-day prison term.

Church fined for lack of cash register

Meanwhile, Tashkent City’s Hamza District Tax authorities on April 28 fined the officially registered Baptist Church 6,988,500 Soms (or 4,090 US Dollars) for alleged violations of Uzbekistan’s Tax Code, Baptists speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of state retaliation told Forum 18.

Officials claim the congregation violated Tax Code Article 119 Part 1, which punishes “Carrying out trade and rendering services without the use of cash registers with fiscal memory when their use is compulsory, as well as selling goods or providing services without giving a receipt.”

Forum 18 said the Hamza Tax Department sent the written decision on the fine to the Church. It warned the Church that if it failed to pay, the case would be brought to the Economic Court. The Baptists fear that their property could be confiscated if they do not pay the fine.

Church member faces criminal prosecution

Forum 18 said on April 22, according to local Baptists and six days prior to that decision, the Hamza Tax authorities also opened a criminal case against Konstantin Malchikovsky, a member of the Baptist Church.

Madina Mirvaliyeva, Senior Investigator of Hamza District Tax Department, opened the case under Criminal Code Article 189 Part 2 for “violation of regulations for trade or delivery of services.” This carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.

The Baptists said authorities brought charges against Malchikovsky because “he did not cash in 4,122,150 Soms collected from offerings and sales of books between 2003 and 2010.”

Nadyr (he did not give his last name), the Assistant of Investigator Mirvaliyeva, told Forum 18 on May 12 that they have referred the case against Malchikovsky to Hamza District Prosecutor.

Asked by Forum 18 whether it was necessary to open a criminal case against Malchikovsky, and whether Malchikovsky or the Church could not have been warned the first time and explained the regulations, Nadyr said that “the case is no longer in our hands.” He declined to respond to whether or not this was pressure on Malchikovsky and the Church by the authorities, and also declined to talk further to Forum 18.

Earlier raid, massive confiscation and huge fines

Forum 18 said April saw two major raids on the Hamza District Baptist Church. On April 7, police led a 12-hour raid on the church, confiscating thousands of copies of Christian books, as well as money belonging personally to one church member.

On April 11, Forum 18 said, NSS secret police and the ordinary police made a second 14-hour raid on a church-owned apartment nearby. This time tens of thousands of copies of Christian books were seized, together with printing equipment. Four church members – including Malchikovsky – were each fined between 50 and 100 times the minimum monthly wage.

While Muslims, Protestant Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the many religious communities to be regularly targeted by officials, Forum 18 said Baptists have been particular targets in recent years. In 2010 the authorities forced a change in the leadership of Uzbekistan’s Baptist Union, by imposing large fines on Baptist leaders and denying them the legal right to hold office.

Forum 18 said in a separate case in Tashkent in April, another Baptist Galina Shemetova – who had been physically assaulted by police – was also fined 50 times the monthly minimum wage.

For more background, see Forum 18’s Uzbekistan religious freedom survey at www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1170.

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Jeremy Reynalds is Senior Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, a freelance writer and also the founder and CEO of Joy Junction, New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter, http://www.joyjunction.org He has a master's degree in communication from the University of New Mexico, and a Ph.D. in intercultural education from Biola University in Los Angeles. His newest book is "Now You See Me." Additional details on some of Reynalds' previous books are available at http://www.HomelessBook.com. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For more information contact: Jeremy Reynalds at jeremyreynalds@comcast.net.

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