Alarming Developments for Religious Freedom in Kazakhstan

Alarming Developments for Religious Freedom in Kazakhstan

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Tuesday, February 05, 2002

Mr. Speaker, troubling amendments to the current Kazakh law on religion await President Nursultan Nazarbayev's signature to enter into force. Both the lower and upper houses of the Kazakh parliament passed the amendments without any substantive modifications. As a result, if President Nazarbayev signs the legislation into law during the ten-day window, Kazakhstan would seriously undermine its commitments as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to ensure the freedom of the individual to profess and practice their religion or belief. Introduced without public consultation in late November 2001, the amendments passed the lower house on January 17 and the upper house on January 31 of this year. The sudden rush to passage was surprising. Kazakhstan had been working with the OSCE Advisory Panel of Experts for Freedom of Religion or Belief to craft a law in harmony with its OSCE commitments. In fact, an earlier draft heavily criticized by the Advisory Panel was withdrawn in August 2001. The Advisory Panel issued a report on the latest draft on January 16, 2002, highlighting serious deficiencies in the text. However, it appears little heed was given to their critique. Reportedly, the executive branch pushed vigorously for legislation providing stricter controls on minority religious groups, which would explain the rapid consideration.

In response to these unfolding events, myself, Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell and six other Commissioners of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Helsinki Commission, wrote President Nazarbayev last week about these developments. The text of that letter, which I am submitting for the RECORD, highlights several, but not all problematic elements of the recently passed legislation. Of particular note are the increased hurdles for registration and vaguely worded articles, which could allow for arbitrary denials of registration for religious groups, and consequently their legal existence. Accordingly, there is great concern for the future of religious freedom in Kazakhstan, whether for Muslims or Christians. Mr. Speaker, in the letter we respectfully asked President Nazarbayev not to sign the amendments into law.

Our concerns are not based on mere supposition; related laws and regulations have been utilized to suppress faith communities in Kazakhstan. For example, this past summer Article 375 of the Administrative Code was introduced, requiring the registration of all religious groups and including language penalizing unregistered religious groups. Police have since justified several raids on religious meetings citing Article 375, resulting in harassment and imprisonment as well as reported beatings and torture. Actions late last year against unregistered Baptist pastors is an illustrative example. On October 27, 2001, Pastor Asylbek Nurdanov, a Baptist leader in the Kyzyl-Orda regional city of Kazalinsk, went to a police station after his church was raided for failing to register. Once there, he was reportedly severely beaten and stripped, with one officer attempting to strangle him with a belt. Another threatened to cut off his tongue with scissors if he did not renounce his faith. It was also reported that on November 10, Pastor Nurdanov was forcibly taken and detained in a psychiatric hospital in Kyzyl-Orda. While he was released on November 16, such abuse is unacceptable. Other reports of police harassment and detention of Baptist pastors who have not registered their faith communities also exist. For example, on September 25, 2001, the Aktobe public prosecutor initiated legal proceedings against Baptist Pastor Vasily Kliver on the charge of "evading the registration of a religious community.'' In October, Baptist pastor Valery Pak was jailed in Kyzyl-Orda for five days on the same charge. These reports of harassment, torture and detention indicate a serious failure to uphold Kazakhstan's human rights commitments as an OSCE participating State.

As is evident, our concerns about Kazakh authorities utilizing the proposed amendment's restrictive nature to harass, if not condemn, religious groups are borne out by past practice in Kazkahstan. Mr. Speaker, it is my hope that President Nazarbayev will honor the obligations his nation freely chose to uphold as a participating OSCE state and not sign the amendments into law. Mr. Speaker, I request that the text of the letter sent to President Nazarbayev last week be included in the Record.

 

January 30, 2002. His Excellency Nursultan Nazarbayev,

President of the Republic of Kazakhstan,

Astana, Kazakhstan.

 

Dear President Nazarbayev:

The OSCE Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion and Belief issued a review of the proposed amendments on January 16, 2002. The review found the proposed amendments, while an improvement from an earlier draft withdrawn in August 2001, seriously deficient in many respects. In addition, the OSCE Centre in Almaty has stated the current religion law meets international standards and found no justification for initiating the new provisions. Therefore, we believe the remarks contained in the OSCE Advisory Panel critique should be followed fully. Problematic areas include, but are not limited to, permitting the registration of Muslim groups and the building of mosques only after a recommendation of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan. In addition, the number of individuals required to form a religious association would increase from 10 to 50, regardless of religion. Furthermore, the proposed amendments would permit dissolution of a religious group should individual members of the group commit repeated violations of the law. Each of these examples would allow the government to arbitrarily deny registration, and thereby legal existence, on specious legal grounds not in harmony with OSCE commitments. Reportedly, your government's justification for the new requirements in the current amendments, which create hurdles for registration, is to combat religious extremism. Yet the definition of "religious extremism'' in the amendments is vague and inherently problematic, potentially categorizing and prohibiting groups on the basis of their beliefs, rather than on their having committed illegal actions. Such vague language would allow the arbitrary interpretation of a group's beliefs and uneven implementation of the law.

Our fear of Kazakh authorities harshly employing new requirements against religious groups is not unfounded. While the existing religion law does not require registration of faith communities, Article 375 of the Administrative Code, a provision added last year, requires the registration of faith communities. Since the promulgation of that article, we have received several reports of unregistered groups being penalized through criminal sanctions, as well as individuals being beaten while in custody. The harassment, detention and beating of individuals for merely belonging to unregistered religious groups, as well as disproportionate criminal charges for an administrative violation, are in direct violation of OSCE commitments. In calling for these actions, we remind you of the 1991 Moscow Document in which the OSCE participating States declared that "issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern'' and "are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.'' It is in this light that these requests are made. Last autumn, your government made a wise decision by choosing to honor its OSCE commitments and withdrawing the earlier version of the amendments. Recognizing the crucial importance that the very highest standards of religious freedom and human rights agreed to and proclaimed in various Helsinki documents be upheld, we respectfully urge you to take similar steps and not sign the amendments into law, should they pass the Senate without substantive modification.

Sincerely,


Ben Nighthorse Campbell, U.S.S.
Chairman

Christopher H. Smith, M.C.
Co-Chairman

Steny H. Hoyer, M.C.; Joseph R. Pitts, M.C.; Zach Wamp, M.C.; Robert B. Aderholt, M.C.; Alcee L. Hastings, M.C.; Louise McIntosh Slaughter, M.C.

 

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    The briefing reviewed the current condition of life in Crimea under Russian rule. Panelists highlighted the illegal nature of Russian rule over the peninsula and described the human rights abuses commited by the new authorities. Several of the panelists described the propaganda campaign and censorship that the Russian government has been carrying out to tighten its grip on the peninsula. Participants also outlined possible responses by the international community -- particularly sanctions -- to address the situation in Crimea.

  • Chairman Smith Underscores Plight of Political Prisoners in OSCE Region on International Human Rights Day

    WASHINGTON–To mark International Human Rights Day on December 10, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “The number of political prisoners is growing in several OSCE countries. For example, Russian human rights organization Memorial estimates that there are currently 50 political prisoners in Russia – a spike in recent years. Their so-called ‘criminal’ activities include protesting Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, blogging on police misbehavior, or exchanging open source information with a foreign research partner. “The government of Azerbaijan has in recent years imprisoned scores of people—including human rights activists and journalists. The recent release of Leyla and Arif Yunus is a positive first step. President Aliyev now must insist that the spurious charges against not only the Yunuses, but also against Khadija Ismayilova, Intigam Aliyev, and many other political prisoners, be dropped. “The number of political prisoners in central Asia has been high for years and it is not declining. In Turkmenistan, former Foreign Ministers Batyr Berdiev and Boris Shikmuradov are just two of the more than 100 people who have disappeared into Turkmenistan’s prison system, which is known for shockingly terrible conditions. In Tajikistan, members of the opposition Islamic Renewal Party of Tajikistan have been arrested, alongside the lawyers who tried to defend them. Uzbekistan has jailed human rights activists, members of certain religious groups, and journalists – including Muhammad Bekjanov, who has been held since 1999 – after poorly conducted trials and despite allegations of torture and abuse.” “On International Human Rights Day, I call on the OSCE to place the release of political prisoners at the top of the organization’s agenda.” Smith also issued a statement calling on the administration to sanction the Chinese government egregious human rights violations. December 10, International Human Rights Day, commemorates the Universal Declaration on Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Probe Human Rights Violations in Occupied Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “Human Rights Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea” Friday, December 11 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room B-318 Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory of Crimea in March 2014 – which flagrantly violated numerous international agreements, including core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act – resulted in a deplorable human rights situation that continues today.   Changes in government and the legal framework in Crimea following Russia’s annexation have had a toxic impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Violations of civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights are widespread, especially against those who openly oppose the Russian occupation, including Crimean Tatars and other ethnic, political, and religious groups. The Helsinki Commission briefing will present key findings of the recent report, “Human Rights on Occupied Territory: Case of Crimea,” prepared by an international team of lawyers led by Ivanna Bilych.  Panelists from Ukraine will provide valuable insights about the situation on the ground. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ivanna Bilych, Co-founder and President of VOLYA Institute, board member of the Ukrainian American Bar Association Andriy Klymenko, Chief Editor of Black Sea News; prominent economist, originally from Crimea Bohdan Yaremenko, Chairman of the board of the Ukrainian non-governmental organization, Maidan of Foreign Affairs, former Ukrainian diplomat Yuriy Yatsenko, Activist of the Maidan Revolution of Dignity who was illegally imprisoned in Russia on political grounds and recently released after a year of imprisonment

  • The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan

    This briefing discussed the current state of democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan following the 2015 parlimentary election.  Ambassador Morningstar, who was the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2012 until 2014, recommended that the United States focus on building trust and opportunites for cooperation with the Azerbaijani government, in order to have leverage to encourage respect for human rights. Natalia Bourjaily spoke about the increasing number of legal restrictions on foriegn NGOs in Azerbaijan and Dinara Yunus discussed the conditions under which her parents, Azeri human rights activists, were held.  

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Serious Decline in Respect for Human Rights in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan” Thursday, November 5 2:00PM Cannon House Office Building Room 311 The last two years have witnessed a precipitous decline in the respect for rule of law and human rights in Azerbaijan. Many independent civil society organizations have been forced to close due to onerous regulations, threats of intimidation, or the arrest of the organization’s leaders. Independent media has been severely curtailed or closed down. Opposition parties are harassed and often shut out of the election process. High-profile politicians are serving lengthy prison sentences on charges that many observers believe were politically motivated. This briefing will have a particular focus on the rule of law and how the government of Azerbaijan is using its judicial system to intimidate and imprison critics of the government. The briefing will also analyze the results of the November 1 parliamentary election and its implications for Azerbaijan’s future direction. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ambassador Richard Morningstar, US Ambassador to the Republic of Azerbaijan from July 2012 to August 2014 and Founding Director of the Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council Natalia Bourjaily, Vice President – Eurasia, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Dinara Yunus, Daughter of imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus

  • The Russian Government Violates Its Security, Economic, Human Rights Commitments and Agreements

    Mr. Speaker, yesterday I chaired a hearing of the Helsinki Commission that examined the Russian government’s repeated violations of its international security, economic, and human rights commitments.  In accord with the three dimensions of security promoted by the OSCE and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the Commission looked at Russia’s respect for the rule of law through the lens of three ‘‘case studies’’ current to U.S.-Russian relations—arms control agreements; the Yukos litigation; and instances of abduction, unjust imprisonment, and abuse of prisoners.  Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act.  At stake is the hard-won trust between members—now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails.  In respect of military security, under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum Russia reaffirmed its commitment to respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and existing borders. Russia also committed to refrain from the threat or use of force or economic coercion against Ukraine. There was a quid pro quo here: Russia did this in return for transferring Soviet-made nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil to Russia.  Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. It appears these are not isolated instances. In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments such as the Vienna Document and binding international agreements, including the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF), and Open Skies treaties.  In respect of commercial issues, the ongoing claims regarding the Russian government’s expropriation of the Yukos Oil Company are major tests facing the Russian government. In July 2014, GML Limited and other shareholders were part of a $52 billion arbitration claim awarded by the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  In response, the Russian government is threatening to withdraw from the ECHR and seize U.S. assets should American courts freeze Russian holdings on behalf of European claimants, while filing technical challenges that will occupy the courts for years to come. All of this fundamentally calls into question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms such as that of the Hague.  I note that U.S. Yukos shareholders are not covered by the Hague ruling for their estimated $6 billion in losses. This is due to the fact that the United States has not ratified the Energy Charter Treaty, under which European claimants won their case, as well as the continued absence of a bilateral investment treaty with Russia. This has handicapped U.S. investors in Russia’s energy sector, leaving them solely dependent of a State Department espousal process with the Russian government.  We were all relieved to learn that Mr. Kara-Murza is recovering from the attempt on his life—by poisoning—in Russia earlier this year. His tireless work on behalf of democracy in Russia, and his personal integrity and his love of his native country is an inspiration—it is true patriotism, a virtue sadly lacking among nationalistic demagogues.  Sadly, the attempt on Mr. Kara-Murza’s life is not an isolated instance. Others have been murdered—most recently Boris Nemtsov—and both his and Mr. Kara-Murza’s cases remain unsolved.  In other cases, such as the abductions, unjust imprisonments, and abuses of Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov, and Eston Kohver, we are dealing the plain and public actions of the Russian government. Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot and elected parliamentarian, was abducted by Russian government agents, imprisoned, subjected to a humiliating show trial, and now faces 25 years in prison for allegedly murdering Russian reporters—who in fact were killed after she was in Russian custody.  Meanwhile, a Russian court has sentenced Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov on charges of terrorism. Tortured during detention, Sentsov’s only transgressions appear to be his refusal to recognize Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and his effort to help deliver food to Ukrainian soldiers trapped on their Crimean bases by invading Russian soldiers. And the kidnaping and subsequent espionage trial against Estonian law enforcement officer Eston Kohver demonstrates the Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders.  The Magnitsky Act that I had the honor to co-sponsor was in part meant to address human rights abuses such as these. It sanctions those involved in the abuse, and works to discourage further human rights violations while protecting those brave enough to call attention to their occurrence. It troubles me greatly to hear that the Administration’s listings of sanctioned individuals has thus far only targeted ‘minor players,’ rather than those who pull the strings.  

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Chris Smith Shines Light on Egregious Rule-of-Law Abuses by Russian Government

    WASHINGTON—At a Congressional hearing today, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, spotlighted the many recent violations of the rule of law committed by the Russian government. “Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who called the hearing. “At stake is the hard-won trust between members, now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails.” “Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.  It appears these are not isolated instances.  In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments,” Smith continued. “[I also] question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms...[and recent government actions] demonstrate Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders.” Witness testimony highlighted case studies corresponding to each of the three dimensions of comprehensive security established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): politico-military security; economic and environmental security; and human rights and fundamental freedoms. Tim Osborne, executive director of GML Ltd., the majority owner of the now-liquidated Yukos Oil Company, said, “It is clear that the Russian Federation is not honoring its obligations and commitments under the rule of law or in a manner consistent with the Helsinki process.  Russia’s tendency, more often than not, has been to ignore, delay, obstruct or retaliate when faced with its international law responsibilities…Russia cannot be trusted in international matters and that even when it has signed up to international obligations, it will ignore them if that is what it thinks serves it best.” “Russia had engaged in the uncompensated expropriation of billions of dollars of U.S. investments in Yukos Oil Company,” observed former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Ambassador Alan Larson. “American investors—who owned about 12 percent of Yukos at the time of the expropriation—have claims worth over $14 billion, and they are entitled to compensation under international law even though they have no option for bringing claims directly against the Russian Federation.” Vladimir Kara-Murza, a well-known Russian activist and the coordinator of the Open Russia Movement, said, “Today, the Kremlin fully controls the national airwaves, which it has turned into transmitters for its propaganda…the last Russian election recognized by the OSCE as conforming to basic democratic standards was held more than 15 years ago.” “There are currently 50 political prisoners in the Russian Federation,” Kara-Murza continued. “These prisoners include opposition activists jailed under the infamous ‘Bolotnaya case’ for protesting against Mr. Putin’s inauguration in May 2012; the brother of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny; and Alexei Pichugin, the remaining hostage of the Yukos case.” “A clear pattern emerges when one looks at Russia’s implementation of its arms control obligations overall,” observed Stephen Rademaker, former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and Nonproliferation. “Should Moscow conclude such agreements have ceased to serve its interest, it will ignore them, effectively terminate them, violate them while continuing to pay them lip service, or selectively implement them…Russia believes that this is how great powers are entitled to act, and today Moscow insists on acting and being respected as a great power.” Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a panel of lawmakers including Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04).

  • Russian Rule-of-Law Abuses to Be Examined at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Russian Violations of the Rule of Law: How Should the U.S. Respond? 3 Case Studies” Wednesday, October 21 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Live Webcast: http://bit.ly/1VRaf3G The actions of the Russian government have raised questions about Russia’s failure to respect its commitment to the rule of law in the areas of military security, commerce, and laws bearing on human rights – each corresponding to one of the three dimensions of security established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).   Using the Helsinki Final Act as a basis for discussion, the hearing will focus on security violations of the Budapest Memorandum; the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), Open Skies, Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaties, and the Vienna Document.  Regarding international legal and commercial agreements such as the Energy Charter Treaty, the New York Convention and bilateral investment treaties the hearing will review developments in the Yukos Oil case.  On human rights, it will inquire into cases of abduction/unjust imprisonment, torture, and abuse, including those of Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov, and Eston Kover.   The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Coordinator, Open Russia Movement Alan Larson, Senior International Policy Advisor with Covington & Burlington LLP, former Under Secretary of State for Economics and Career Ambassador, U.S. State Department      Tim Osborne, Executive Director of GML Ltd. - the majority owner of the now liquidated Yukos Oil Company Stephen Rademaker, Principal with the Podesta Group, Former Assistant Secretary of State for the U.S. State Department Bureau of Arms Control and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

  • Bipartisan Congressional Delegation Represents US at OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; Also Visits Ukraine, Czech Republic

    Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act established the precursor to today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), five members of the Helsinki Commission and four other members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Helsinki to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. Led by Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS), the bicameral, bipartisan delegation organized by the Helsinki Commission included Commission Chairman Representative Chris Smith (NJ- 04); House Commissioners Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Alan Grayson (FL-09); and Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Michael Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Richard Hudson (NC-08) and Ruben Gallego (AZ-07). Before attending the Annual Session from July 5 to 7, several members of the delegation also visited Ukraine and the Czech Republic. A central concern to the delegation throughout the trip was Russia’s restrictions on democracy at home and aggression in Ukraine, along with Russia’s threat to European security.

  • Central Asia Becomes New Target for ISIS Recruiters

    Thousands of fighters have fled their home countries to join the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, including the chief of the counter-terrorism program in a Central Asian country. Col. Gulmurod Khalimov, who was highly trained by the U.S., left his post in Tajikistan, posting a video online last week as proof. While perhaps the most notable example, Khalimov is only one of an estimated 4,000 people who have left nations in central Asia to join ISIS, according to the International Crisis Group. “What does this say about the current effort to stop terror-minded men and women from volunteering and traveling to the Middle East?” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., asked at a hearing about the recruitment of foreign fighters from Central Asia. The hearing took place on the anniversary of ISIS’ capture of Mosul, Iraq. “Clearly, our government – working with others …  must take stronger action to combat radicalization beyond our borders.” In a step toward this goal, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Smith is a co-chairman, held a hearing to discuss recruitment of foreign fighters from Central Asia countries. The commission, also known as the Helsinki Commission, focused on the five countries in the region: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

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