A Special Report by ICC
7/9/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Kazakhstan’s true colors are showing in regards to freedom of religion as it pertains to Christians. With ever rising fines and a new travel ban, which is viewed as “double punishment,” Christians are feeling harassed for merely practicing their right to religious freedom.
Baptists are among the tens of thousands of people on a list of those temporarily banned from leaving the Republic of Kazakhstan. The ban on leaving the country follows their refusal to pay fines imposed on them for practicing their faith. As the fine itself is viewed as a violation of their right to religious freedom, the travel ban is seen by Christians as an unjust “double punishment.”
At least 62 Baptist Churches have been given administrative fines since the beginning of 2013, reported Forum 18 on June 7th. These fines are handed down for the violation of severely restrictive religious laws that can be interpreted to regard even Sunday morning church services as illegal “unauthorized meetings.”
In May 2013, Aleksei Asetov was given a three-day prison term for refusing to pay a fine which was imposed when he attended a religious gathering without state permission. The fine was handed to him in February 2012 and amounted to the equivalent of $3,273 USD, about a year and a half’s worth of average local wages in the Pavlodar region. In March 2013, Vyacheslav Cherkasov was fined for handing out religious books on the street, an act that is punishable by law.
Christians are not the only religious minority affected, as sixteen administrative cases are currently underway to punish Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Some have already been fined and are awaiting their appeals, others are waiting for their trial to begin,” one Jehovah’s Witness told Forum 18 on 10 June. “But these cases all end the same way – with fines.”
The Registration Regime
Kazakhstan requires all religious groups to “register” with the government, which is legal jargon for endorsing state-controlled monitoring of religious belief and practice. The Council of Baptist Churches refuses to apply for state registration on principle. This is their act of civil disobedience: refusing to pay fines which they regard as unjust and unconstitutional. They maintain that registering for religions meetings not only violates their rights to religious freedom, but also violates Kazakhstan’s own human rights commitments.
As a result of their policy of civil disobedience, The Council of Baptist Churches runs the risk of being placed on one of two lists – the exit ban list that prohibits members from leaving the country or the register of debtors, which has half a million names of those who cannot leave the country because they owe money.
In autumn 2012, Aleksei Buka canceled a trip to Kyrgyzstan to seek medical treatment when he discovered his name was on a list banning him from traveling to Kazakhstan. As he began travel plans he received a court order banning him from leaving the country, and church members checked with border guards to confirm that his name was in fact in the database of travel bans. Now, Buka is unable to receive the medical treatment he needs.
The most troubling part of the travel ban following non-payment of fines is how the process occurs in the first place. In some cases the “offenders” are not informed of the hearing where the ban is executed, are not invited to the hearing, and are often not given a copy of the ban in writing. Frequently, they are denied the chance to challenge the ruling.
Saida Sagdat, Deputy Chair of the Justice Ministry’s Committee for the Execution of Court Judgments insisted to Forum 18 that individuals and her officials have no choice but to accept the system. “We can’t comment on court decisions or the basis of them – what is important is that the court has taken a decision. Whether a person agrees with the court decision or not, as a state agency it is our duty to fulfill it.”
Moving Forward with Harassment
As Kazakhstan continues issuing fines for “unauthorized religious meetings,” now followed by punitive action against non-payment of fines, the trend of harassing Christians continues. With unauthorized raids, needless fines, illegal detentions, bureaucratic harassment, refusals for registration and denials for re-registration it is difficult for religious minorities to practice their faith.
Since the implementation of a new law last year that forced already registered religious communities to re-register, there have been numerous reports of police disrupting church gatherings, illegally filming services, detaining worshippers and other minor incidents that were not permissible before the new reforms were introduced. The growing increase in fines stems from legislative manipulation with the intent to harass religious groups into compliance and capitulation, in the name of combating extremism.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s formal recognition of religious freedom needs to translate into a civil society governed by a just system which operates with religious freedom as a core value. By not providing religious freedom to their people, Kazakhstan runs the risk of being regarded as a repressive nation with an unfulfilled destiny.
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