OSLO, Norway (BP) -- Two grandmothers in their 70s were among seven Baptists fined for participating in an unregistered religious meeting in a private home in eastern Kazakhstan on April 4.
Each was fined the equivalent of one to two months' average wages for local state employees, according to verdicts seen by Forum 18 News Service, a religious freedom monitoring organization based in Oslo, Norway.
Forum 18 asked a judges' assistant at the district court in the town of Ayagoz whether the judges and court officials were embarrassed over punishing religious believers for meeting for prayer. The assistant refused comment.
The oldest of the two grandmothers who were fined is 77. However, another Baptist -- former Soviet-era religious prisoner Yakov Skornyakov -- was 79 when he was given a large fine for his religious activity in April 2006.
The seven fines, so far in 2013, bring to eight the number of members of the Council of Churches Baptist Church in Ayagoz who have been fined. Another is awaiting trial.
Members of the Council of Baptists have a policy of not seeking state registration, insisting that Kazakhstan's constitution and the country's international human rights commitments cannot require registration before they can meet to worship. The Baptists also have a policy of not paying the many administrative fines handed down to their members across Kazakhstan.
The April 4 raid on the Baptist service in Ayagoz came just four days after a raid on New Life church's Easter Sunday service in Kazakhstan's Akmola region encompassing the capital of the former Soviet satellite in central Asia.
As well as Council of Churches Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses also are facing an increasing number of administrative fines.
In other developments:
-- After widespread outrage among believers and human rights defenders in Kazakhstan, an appeals court has cancelled a lower court's decision ordering the destruction of Bibles and other Christian literature confiscated from Baptist Vyacheslav Cherkaso. However, the court left a fine against Cherkaso unchanged.
-- Several prominent members of religious communities have found themselves on criminal investigation lists despite the fact that they have never been prosecuted or investigated on administrative or criminal charges.
-- Atheist writer and human rights defender Aleksandr Kharlamov is in detention in eastern Kazakhstan under investigation on criminal charges of inciting religious hatred for his writings on religion.
The April 4 raid in Ayagoz was the second conducted in 2013 during a service at the Council of Churches Baptist church. District prosecutor Serik Turdin told Forum 18 on April 10, "Police drew up a record of an offense because they were meeting without state registration."
Administrative cases against eight church members were sent to the district court in Ayagoz for violating Code of Administrative Offences Article 374-1, Part 2 ("Participation in the activity of an unregistered or banned social or religious organization").
Turdin's assistant, Zukhra Shaimukhametova, represented the prosecutor's office at the seven hearings conducted thus far, according to the verdicts. She was unavailable in court hearings each time Forum 18 tried to reach her on April 10.
In separate trials April 5, Judge Korlan Khalelova sentenced Valentina Dyakova, 77, and fellow church member Tatyana Agaeva, while Judge Nurzhalgas Tompakova sentenced Vera Poltoratskaya and Viktor Poltoratsky.
On April 8, Judge Khalelova sentenced Raisa Bakenova, 76, while Judge Bakdarly Orazbek sentenced Svetlana Zaitseva and Natalya Andryusheva.
Each was fined 50 Monthly Financial Indicators (MFIs) or 86,500 Kazakh Tenge ($575 in U.S. dollars), the maximum penalty under the statute. An official of the court who would not give his name told Forum 18 on April 10 that state employees locally receive a salary of between 50,000 and 90,000 Tenge per month while teachers generally would receive about 50,000 Tenge monthly.
At each trial, the court noted the March 1 letter from the East Kazakhstan Justice Department (produced for the earlier prosecution of the church's leader, Pavel Leonov) that the Ayhagoz church does not have state registration. At Poltoratsky's trial, according to the verdict, the court examined photographs of the church, with a sign outside that it is a "Prayer House for all Nations of the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists" and an inside room with a pulpit, benches and quotations from the Bible on the wall.
Court officials refused to tell Forum 18 when the case against the eighth church member, Valentina Bliznova, will be heard.
District prosecutor Turdin defended the cases against the eight church members. "They were praying illegally," he insisted to Forum 18. "If they registered their church, they wouldn't have these problems." Asked why people need to gain state registration before they can hold religious meetings, he responded: "It's the law. They have the right to appeal against the decisions if they're not happy with them."
Two of the same judges handed down earlier punishments against Ayagoz Baptist church leader Pavel Leonov.
On March 4, Judge Khalelova fined Leonov 100 MFIs, the maximum penalty under Code of Administrative Offences Article 374-1, Part 1 ("Leadership of an unregistered or banned social or religious organisation"). He was punished for leading a service raided by police on Feb. 28.
Leonov appealed against the punishment. However, on April 1 -- three days before the latest raid on the church -- a panel of judges at East Kazakhstan Regional Court led by Judge Naylya Nuralyeva rejected his appeal, according to the verdict seen by Forum 18. Leonov had insisted to the appeals court that he had the right to invite relatives, friends and fellow believers to his private home for religious meetings. But the court held that the lower court had correctly characterized it as an administrative offence.
Judge Khalelova had also sentenced Leonov in April 2009 to one day's detention for having "categorically refused" to pay a fine of 100 MFIs handed down by Judge Tompakova in July 2008 under Article 374-1, Part 1, according to the verdict seen by Forum 18.
Meanwhile, two Jehovah's Witnesses who received administrative punishments in March for conducting "missionary activity without registration" have appealed their fines. Judge Bolat Kenzhenov of North Kazakhstan Regional Court is due to hear the appeal of Valeri Alekseev on April 11, with Judge Abay Ryskaliyev of the same court due to hear the appeal of Nikolai Kokotov the same day, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18.
Alekseev and Kokotov were each fined 100 MFIs -- the maximum penalty for Kazakh citizens under the charges they faced -- at a district court on March 12. Two female Jehovah's Witnesses were fined for the same offense in January.
Literature destruction overturned
In the case involving court-ordered destruction of Christian materials, Judge Nurlan Kurmangaliev of the Akmola Regional Court overturned that part of the decision against Vyacheslav Cherkasov that 121 Bibles and other Christian literature confiscated from him should be destroyed.
A district court judge, Damir Shamuyratov, had ordered the books destroyed March 5 when he fined Cherkasov on Administrative Offences Article 375, Part 1.
The court-ordered religious literature destruction provoked widespread outrage within Kazakhstan. "Information that preparations are underway in Kazakhstan to burn the Bible have raced around the planet," Kazakh journalist Sergei Duvanov noted, citing Forum 18's report on his Facebook page March 26, the same day Cherkasov's appeal was heard.
Duvanov predicted that the decision to destroy Cherkasov's Bibles and other literature would be overturned in view of the negative publicity around the world. "But this will only happen because someone was able to report on the act of vandalism being prepared to human rights defenders in Oslo and they gave it wide publicity."
Cherkasov insisted during the March 26 hearing that distributing religious literature to those that want it is not banned and "is his constitutional right, both to freedom of speech and freedom of religion", according to the appeal court verdict seen by Forum 18. Cherkasov asked the court to return the books. Even the prosecutor called for the cancellation of the part of the verdict ordering the confiscated books to be destroyed. Instead, the appeals court ordered the books to be handed to the Akmola regional department of the government's Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA).
However, the court upheld the verdict against Cherkasov under Code of Administrative Offences Article 375, Part 1 ("illegal distribution of religious literature") and upheld the fine of 50 MFIs, the maximum under this article for individuals.
"Thank God they didn't destroy my books," Cherkasov told Forum 18 from his home in Shchuchinsk on April 9. He said he went to the regional ARA department on April 8, where an official, Galina Bessmertnaya who had been involved in the court case, returned the confiscated books.
Cherkasov told Forum 18 he intends to continue appealing the fine. He also stated that Bessmertnaya is preparing a further administrative case against him. "She refused to tell me when it will reach court," Cherkasov told Forum 18.
Forum 18 was unable to reach Bessmertnaya at the regional ARA department on April 10. Officials told Forum 18 she was out of the office giving a lecture.
Felix Corley is editor of Forum 18 (www.forum18.org). Editor's note: This article was edited for use in Baptist Press; the article as posted at Forum 18 can be accessed at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1822.) According to its website, Forum 18 "is a Christian web and e-mail initiative to provide original reporting and analysis on violations of the freedom of thought, conscience and belief of all people, whatever their religious affiliation, in an objective, truthful and timely manner. It mainly publishes on the former Soviet states, notably Belarus and Central Asia, but also publishes original work on states such as Serbia and Turkey. Forum 18 works for religious freedom for all on the basis of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."
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