Uzbekistan: Man May Get 15-Year Sentence for Reading Bible

Jeremy Reynalds | Correspondent for ASSIST News Service | Updated: Jul 16, 2008

Uzbekistan: Man May Get 15-Year Sentence for Reading Bible

July 17, 2008

UZBEKISTAN -- A Protestant from the Karakalpakstan area of north-west Uzbekistan faces criminal trial later in July on charges of teaching religion without official approval, and establishing or participating in a state dubbed “religious extremist” organization.

According to a story by Forum 18's Mushfig Bayram, the news service learned this from the investigator in the case Bahadur Jakbaev.

One of the two charges Aimurat Khayburahmanov faces – establishing or participating in a “religious extremist” organization – carries a penalty of up to 15 years imprisonment. Jakbaev denied reports from local Protestants reaching Forum 18 that Khayburahmanov has been beaten in prison since his June 14 arrest. He claimed his health is “fine.”

According to Forum 18, Karakalpakstan Region operates a very harsh religious policy, with all non state-controlled Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox activity being a criminal offence.

Asked what behavior in Khayburahmanov’s activity characterizes him as an “extremist,” Jakbaev told Forum 18 that he gathered people in his home and read “prohibited” Christian literature, as determined by the Karakalpakstan Religious Affairs Committee.

“The Bible is not prohibited in Uzbekistan, but there are Christian books that are,” Jakbaev told Forum 18.

Asked by Forum18 which “prohibited” books Khayburahmanov had been reading, Jakbaev refused to say. All he would say was that the Religious Affairs Committee expert analysis had found them to be banned. He insisted that imprisonment is not too harsh a punishment for reading “prohibited” Christian books.

Jakbaev told Forum 18 that Khayburahmanov has been charged under two articles of the Criminal Code. The first is Article 229-2, which punishes teaching religion without proper education or permission with a sentence of up to three years imprisonment.

The second was Article 244-2, part 1, which punishes establishing or participating in a “religious extremist” organization with a sentence of between five and 15 years imprisonment.

Local Protestants believe Khayburahmanov is being prosecuted to allow the police later to charge another Nukus-based Protestant, Jandos Kuandikov.

“Actually the police are mainly trying to put Jandos in prison,” one Protestant who knows Khayburahmanov told Forum 18. He added, “Aimurat would then be considered as Jandos’ accomplice.”

The Protestant told Forum 18 that the police did not allow any visits to Khayburahmanov until two days earlier.

“I heard that Aimurat was beaten many times and forced to write a statement implicating Jandos,” he said. Khayburahmanov's body was “covered with bruises” from beatings, the Protestant said he was told.

Jakbaev, the investigator, denied that the police had not allowed visits to Khayburahmanov in the isolation cell. “His friend and father just came to visit him,” he told Forum 18.

Forum 18 reported that eight police officers raided Kuandikov's home in Nukus on June 14, claiming to be conducting an identity check. Although Kuandikov was not at home, Khayburahmanov was there, helping the Kuandikov family prepare for a local wedding.

After Kuandikov returned to his house, he asked the police to show documents authorizing the identity check. The house search lasted until 9 p.m. Police confiscated books, notebooks, videocassettes of weddings and a computer. They also took Kuandikov's passport. Kuandikov, Khayburahmanov and several relatives were then taken to the police station, where they were questioned. Everyone except Khayburahmonov were freed at 1 a.m. the next day.

Forum 18 said the news service tried to find out from Karakalpakstan's Religious Affairs Committee why some Christian books are prohibited in Uzbekistan, but phone calls to the committee were not answered.

Forum 18 said the man who answered the phone at the government's Religious Affairs Committee in the capital city Tashkent refused to answer any questions about Khayburahmanov's arrest and forthcoming trial. He told Forum 18 that they do not give telephone interviews, and hung the phone up.

One Protestant told Forum 18 that Kuandikov's passport, computer and other confiscated property have still been not returned to him. The passport had been confiscated by a police officer named Fayzulla (last name unknown).

“He asked Fayzulla for his passport back,” the Protestant told Forum 18. “But Fayzulla told him that Bahadur Jakbaev, the investigator in Aimurat's case, has it.” The Protestant said that Kuandikov feels he is being “kicked around like a football” by the authorities.

Jakbaev claims that he has already given Kuandikov's passport to the local police. “Kuandikov should contact his local police and talk to them,” he told Forum 18.

Asked by Forum 18 if criminal charges are being brought against Kuandikov as well, Jakbaev said that only administrative charges are being brought against him. He refused to specify exactly what charges.

Meanwhile, Protestants who spoke on condition of anonymity told Forum 18 that several members of a Protestant congregation in the central city of Samarkand have been facing renewed harassment from officials. They said that officials from the Prosecutor's Office have visited church members homes since early July, threatened them and summoned them for questioning.

“As they never present their summonses in writing the church members refuse to go,” one Protestant told Forum 18. “But there's no guarantee that they won't seize people on the street.”

Forum 18 said that the head of Uzbekistan's Jewish community, Chief Rabbi Abe David Gurevich, finally left Uzbekistan on June 5 after the Justice Ministry refused to renew the accreditation for him and his wife Malka to work in the country. Their visas also expired.

“His return to the country depends on whether or not he will get a visa from the Uzbek authorities,” a Jewish representative told Forum 18. 

The news service said that Russian-born Gurevich, who carries a United States and an Israeli passport, had worked in Uzbekistan since 1990. The refusal to allow him to continue working there came despite an appeal to the Justice Ministry signed in April by nearly 90 members of Tashkent's Jewish community.

Copyright 2008 ASSIST News Service

Uzbekistan: Man May Get 15-Year Sentence for Reading Bible