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ICC Note: The arrest and detention of Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev (Pastor BK), release, and subsequent rearrest for violating the nations “extremism” laws has shone an international spotlight on these bizarre statutes. Norway’s Forum 18 provides an overview and analysis of these laws which seems to indicate that actions and literature prohibited as “extremist” in nature are entirely subjective and subject to abusive interpretation by Kazakh authorities. ICC considers Pastor BK’s situation to be one example of the Alamty’s regime’s abuse of this vague statute for political purposes, and encourages the reader to take action to demand his release by visiting this page
11/20/2013 Kazakhstan (Forum 18) – As Kazakhstan’s prior compulsory censorship of almost all literature about religion steps up, a senior official of the government Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) appeared confused about what religious books and other materials are legal and in what circumstances a religious book legal in one place becomes illegal in another. Galym Shoikin, a Deputy Chair of the ARA, insisted to Forum 18 News Service from the capital Astana that unless a book or object is banned by a court, it is legal. But books or objects that are legal cannot be distributed unless they have undergone censorship by the ARA, he added.
When Forum 18 pointed out that this was censorship, Shoikin of the ARA insisted on 31 October that: “This is not censorship – it is defending the interests of our country”.
What is subject to censorship?
The 2011 Religion Law does not specifically define “religious literature, other informational materials of religious content, and objects of religious significance”, but does impose censorship on them (see F18News 23 September 2011 Though this lack of definition will change if draft changes to the Law are adopted (see below).
Shoikin of the ARA refused to specify what is or is not meant by the Law’s terms. Asked for example if Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s writings on religion, ethics and philosophy were subject to religious censorship, he declined to answer.
One Astana-based shop owner, Pyotr Volkov, sought clarification from the ARA as to what constitutes “religious literature”, and so is subject to censorship. He made the enquiry after books were seized from his shop during a police raid in May and being subsequently fined in September (see F18News 4 November 2013
Marat Azilkhanov, a then Deputy Chair of the ARA, responded on 11 September. The response, seen by Forum 18, defines “religious literature” as “printed and electronic publications containing religious content designated for the satisfaction of religious and other socially significant needs of the population deriving from religious postulates”. Azilkhanov added: “To this category belongs production of a theological, theological/canonical, ritual/mystic and social/theological orientation.”
There does not appear to be a legal basis for this definition. Azilkhanov was named on 4 November as the new ARA head.
“Not necessarily banned, but they can’t be distributed”
Religious and belief censorship pre-dated the harsh Religion Law. But the Law stepped up such censorship, and broadened it to include among other things the beliefs groups are allowed to hold if they are allowed to legally exist. Accompanying changes to the Code of Administrative Offences imposed new penalties for those who sell or distribute uncensored literature or objects, or distribute approved literature or objects without the state’s permission (see F18News 23 September 2011
Local authorities and “law enforcement” agencies enforce censorship – including severe limitations on the numbers of bookshops allowed to sell any kind of religious material – across Kazakhstan with raids and fines (see F18News 21 February 2013
The ARA website contains a list of works in Kazakh and Russian which have been approved by the Agency for distribution in specific venues. Such venues can only be registered places of worship and state-licensed bookshops. In addition to many books, 76 films in Kazakh and Russian (mostly Islamic) are also listed, but only seven audio recordings.
No works in other languages have been approved. Not all works that have been approved – such as the few Jehovah’s Witness magazines which have been approved – appear in the published list. Shoikin was unable to say whether the published list includes all approved works.
Kazakhstan continues to ban all non-Hanafi Sunni Muslim literature, a Muslim Board spokesperson telling Forum 18 that “only Islamic literature from the Sunni Hanafi school can be distributed, as all other Muslim schools – including Ahmadis – are banned” (see F18News 21 February 2013
Shoikin of the ARA insisted that all other works not on the published list “are not necessarily banned, but they can’t be distributed”. He insisted they can only be used by individuals personally.
He maintained that all works submitted for “expert analysis” have been provided with conclusions, whether positive or negative. Despite frequent press reports quoting ARA officials about the number of rejected religious works, Shoikin would not discuss them.
Libraries censored too
“Expert analyses” conducted by the ARA are also required for any religious literature acquired by libraries in any institution or organisation (see F18News 23 September 2011
For example, the National Library in Almaty has had its religious books checked, but its General Director Gulisa Balabekova told Forum 18 “there were no problems” (see F18News 26 April 2013
Why the rejections?
Shoikin of the ARA refused to discuss why so few Jehovah’s Witness magazines are approved. Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18 in late September that the ARA has banned the import of 11 of their publications, 10 of them copies of their monthly magazine “The Watchtower” and “Awake!”.
Jehovah’s Witnesses complained that ARA’s “expert analyses” had claimed that the publications promoted “a negative attitude toward certain denominations, including Catholicism”, or “discouraged secular education and work and contained beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses that some doctrines of traditional Christian religions are not Biblical, which the ARA concluded could offend Church members”. The ARA directed Jehovah’s Witnesses to “modify” their publications (see F18News 26 April 2013
Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged some of the denials through the courts. However, on 3 July Astana’s Inter-District Specialised Economic Court rejected this, and it was also rejected by Astana City Court on 27 August, according to the court decisions seen by Forum 18. Jehovah’s Witnesses state that they have no further route to challenge the censorship decisions.
No published official information, but citizens’ ignorance “no defence”
Religious literature and objects (like other literature) can be banned only through the courts. Prosecutors have the power to go to court to seek a ban on literature or other materials deemed “extremist”. Such applications are often based on “expert analyses” prepared by the ARA or regional Departments of Religious Affairs.
No list of banned religious literature or other materials has been published. “Only law-enforcement agencies have this list,” Shoikin of the ARA told Forum 18. Asked how individuals or religious communities could know about – or challenge – court decisions banning religious works as “extremist”, he was unable to say. But he insisted that ignorance of the law is “no defence”.
Forum 18 has been able to find only one court decision where a named religious book has been banned. On 22 November 2012 Almaty’s Almaly District Court No. 2 banned the Russian translation of the book “Healing the Broken Family of Abraham” by American Protestant Don McCurry. It found that the book contains “elements of incitement to religious hatred and discord” and banned its publication, import and distribution in Kazakhstan.
The book, confiscated during the police raid on Grace Church in Almaty in April 2012, was subjected in May 2012 to a Judicial Psychological/Philological Expert Analysis by the Justice Ministry’s Almaty Institute for Judicial Expert Analysis of the Justice Ministry.
Other religious books are thought to be similarly banned (see F18News 9 October 2013 Shoikin of the ARA refused to confirm if any other religious books have been banned through the courts.
Individuals and communities have expressed concern to Forum 18 over claims by state officials that works confiscated from them during police raids are “extremist”. Without being able to assess the truth of such claims, they fear further fines or criminal cases could follow. Astana-based Grace Church’s retired Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev – under arrest since 17 May – is now being investigated on criminal charges of distributing “extremist” material. If convicted he faces a prison sentence of between three and seven years.