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 In fact, an earlier draft heavily criticized by the Advisory Panel was withdrawn in August 2001.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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    WASHINGTON—To mark International Human Rights Day, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: "It has been a difficult year for those of us who are active in human rights in the OSCE region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has flagrantly violated the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, exacerbated regional security, and further revealed the weaknesses of Russia’s own democracy .  The space for civil society – the guardians of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms – is shrinking in more than a few of our participating States, including Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary, breeding abuse of power and corruption. We have been appalled by violent anti-Semitic attacks and a rising tide of intolerance across the OSCE region against minorities and other vulnerable populations.  Uzbekistan holds the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist, who languishes alongside of thousands of political prisoners. "Clearly, the challenges for the countries of the OSCE are as great as ever.  We look forward to supporting Serbia’s 2015 chairmanship of the OSCE, which offers an opportunity both for the country and for the organization. As the effective successor to the only country to be suspended from the Helsinki process, Serbia is a concrete example of how a country can turn things around and how the OSCE can contribute. "In particular, we urge Serbia to build on decisions adopted at last week's Basel Ministerial Council on combating anti-Semitism and corruption.  These are challenges faced by virtually every OSCE participating State. We hope that Serbia will move forward with conviction to support these initiatives and to defend and advocate for the Helsinki principles throughout the region." December 10, International Human Rights Day, celebrates the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Urges Russia to Cease Blatant Violations of OSCE Principles

    WASHINGTON—On the conclusion of the December 4-5 OSCE Ministerial Council in Basel, Switzerland, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statement: “The OSCE Ministerial this year has been exceptional. I welcome the fact that an overwhelming majority of OSCE countries condemned the unlawful occupation of Crimea, defended the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and called for Russia to end its support for violence in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s illegal activities in Ukraine have violated the most fundamental principles of the Helsinki Final Act, on which the OSCE is based. “Moving forward, the OSCE must focus on the implementation of its core commitments. The OSCE PA has spoken to this issue by passing a resolution I introduced in July, calling on Russia to cease its clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of Helsinki principles, not only in Ukraine but regarding other neighbors and at home as well. “Other serious human rights concerns in the OSCE region were spotlighted by the absence of some leading figures from this year’s Ministerial meeting. “While Turkmenistan’s current ambassador to the OSCE addressed his counterparts in Basel, the fate of his predecessor, Batyr Berdiev – as well as some 100 other prisoners – remains unknown. I welcome the Swiss Chairmanship’s efforts to address the issues of torture and enforced disappearances during their chairmanship and call on Turkmenistan to tell the families of Ambassador Berdiev and the other disappeared persons what has happened to their loved ones. “In addition, Rasul Jafarov was prevented from leading a civil society discussion on freedom of expression in Basel. Jafarov remains imprisoned in Azerbaijan in retaliation for his activism. Eldeniz Hajiyev, another human rights activist, was unable to travel to Basel because she is under house arrest in Baku. I commend the 43 OSCE countries which worked to advance an OSCE decision on freedom of expression and urge Azerbaijan to cease its flagrant persecution of independent civil society activists.”

  • The Tyranny You Haven't Heard Of

    You could call it a stealth North Korea: a country in the same league of repression and isolation as the Hermit Kingdom, but with far less attention paid to its crimes. The country is Uzbekistan, one of the Central Asian nations that emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has brought some unique touches to the conduct of a dictatorship. When political prisoners have served their full terms, they often have their sentences extended for violations such as improperly peeling carrots in the prison kitchen or failing to sweep their cells correctly. At harvest time, millions of students, teachers and other workers are temporarily enslaved to pick cotton to the profit of the regime. It has been known to boil its prisoners alive. But in most ways, it is a classic, hard-core police state, among the worst in the world. Like Zimbabwe, it has a president who will not go away: Islam Karimov, who assumed power as Communist Party boss in 1989. After a quarter-century, Karimov, 76, appears as ensconced as ever, though Uzbekistan’s GDP per capita of $3,800 puts it 171st in the world. Like China, it had its Tiananmen Square massacre: the shooting of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005, after which the government ramped up its repression nationwide. And like North Korea, it confines in brutal conditions thousands of political prisoners. How many thousands? Probably not the 80,000 to 120,000 who populate North Korea’s gulag. Human rights groups have offered estimates of 10,000 or 12,000. But, as Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report, no one really knows, because, like North Korea, “Uzbekistan has become virtually closed to independent scrutiny.” Foreign correspondents and human rights monitors generally are not granted visas. No U.N. human rights expert has been allowed in since 2002. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is permitted almost everywhere because it never publicly embarrasses a country, had to pull out of Uzbekistan last year because of interference in its attempted prison visits. Drawing the curtains has helped Uzbekistan avoid scrutiny. But the nation has stayed below the radar for another reason, too: The United States and other Western nations have been reluctant to confront Karimov and his regime. They have needed to ship military supplies through Uzbekistan to reach Afghanistan. And as Russian President Vladi­mir Putin has become increasingly hostile, the West has competed with him for the favor of neighboring nations. Thus the tenor of this White House summary of a telephone call between President Obama and Karimov in 2011, unimaginable if Kim Jong Un had been on the other end of the line: “President Obama congratulated President Karimov on Uzbekistan’s 20 years of independence, and the two leaders pledged to continue working to build broad cooperation between our two countries. The President and President Karimov discussed their shared desire to develop a multi-dimensional relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan, including by strengthening the contacts between American and Uzbek civil societies and private sector.” Never mind that Karimov has virtually eradicated Uzbekistan’s “civil sector.” It’s hard to read of such a phone call without thinking of, say, Muhammad Bekjanov, 60, possibly the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist. Uzbek security agents kidnapped Bekjanov in 1999 in Ukraine, where he was living in exile. He has been beaten, shocked, subjected to temporary suffocation (the “bag of death”) and tortured in other ways. He has contracted tuberculosis, and beatings have cost him most of his teeth and much of his hearing. When his term was set to expire in 2012, he was sentenced to another five years for unspecified “violations of prison rules.” Bekjanov’s crime was to have served as editor of an opposition party newspaper. “There may be legitimate national security concerns that the U.S. needs to engage on,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me. “That doesn’t mean you have to shove everything else under the rug.” There are some encouraging signs that Congress, at least, may be lifting a corner of that rug. In October the congressional Helsinki Commission, which is chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and co-chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), held a briefing on political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Last week eight senators, including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), sent Karimov a letter urging the release of five prisoners, including Bekjanov. These are small steps, but they shine some light on Uzbekistan’s crimes. Karimov cares about his reputation, his access to Western weaponry and his officials’ freedom to travel to Europe and the United States. If Obama also would take some small steps, it might make a big difference to the inmates of Uzbekistan’s invisible gulag.

  • Combating Corruption in the OSCE Region: The Link between Security and Good Governance

    Combating corruption is increasingly recognized as the critical factor in ensuring long-term security, because corruption creates fertile ground for social upheaval and instability. The change in government in Ukraine in 2014 was a prime example of how corruption can fuel legitimate popular discontent. Although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has created new tools to address corruption, tackling the problem requires more than raising awareness and sharing best practices. In many OSCE participating States, systemic issues including lack of media freedom, lack of political will, and lack of an independent judiciary contribute substantially to persistent high-level and low-level corruption. The hearing drew attention to the work of the OSCE in combating corruption in all 57 participating States, with a particular emphasis on the need to build effective institutions and the important role played by civil society in combatting corruption.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Marks Five-Year Anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s Death

    WASHINGTON—Sunday, November 16 marked the five-year anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian tax officials. He died in prison after being held for 11 months without trial.   U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “It is with sadness and respect that we mark the 5th anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of Russian government authorities. During the past five years, the crimes that Sergei first exposed have been further documented.  Despite credible evidence of criminal conduct resulting in Mr. Magnitsky’s death, Russian government officials have failed to bring those responsible to justice. “Perhaps worse, the facts of the case – including misappropriation of Russian tax resources and the ensuing cover-up by Russian government officials – have been distorted, to the extent that the Russian government has posthumously prosecuted the late Mr. Magnitsky for the financial crimes perpetrated by those answerable for his death. “After five years, my outrage at the continuing refusal of Russian leaders’ to confront their own transgressions in the death of Sergei Magnitsky has not abated. Instead, I continue to be amazed at how Russian authorities continue to concoct conspiracy theories attributing blame to others, with tragic consequences: they prohibit their young people from participating in U.S. high school exchange programs, strangle political activity and civic involvement of NGOs, and restrict the media.   “The Russian government has forsaken its obligation to ensure for citizens of the Russian Federation the freedoms of expression, assembly and the right to fair, impartial judicial processes. This rejection has consequences for Russia and its people; for its neighbors, especially Ukraine; and more broadly for us all.   “As we remember Sergei Magnitsky and his sacrifice for justice and transparency in Russia, we and our partners must reaffirm our unwavering support for the international commitments to basic freedoms. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, enacted in 2012, must continue to be used to demonstrate to the world that the voices of those who seek justice and who speak out about human rights violations are heard and valued by the United States of America.”

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Combating Corruption

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Combating Corruption in the OSCE Region: The Link between Security and Good Governance” Wednesday, November 19, 2014 10:00AM U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 203-202 Combating corruption is increasingly recognized as the critical factor in ensuring long-term security, because corruption creates fertile ground for social upheaval and instability. The change in government in Ukraine earlier this year is a prime example of how corruption can fuel legitimate popular discontent. Although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has created new tools to address corruption, tackling the problem requires more than raising awareness and sharing best practices. In many OSCE participating States, systemic issues including lack of media freedom, lack of political will, and lack of an independent judiciary contribute substantially to persistent high-level and low-level corruption. The hearing will draw attention to the work of the OSCE in combating corruption in all 57 participating States, with a particular emphasis on the need to build effective institutions and the important role played by civil society in combatting corruption. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Halil Yurdakul Yigitgüden, Coordinator for Economic and Environmental Affairs, OSCE Khadija Ismayilova, Host of "Isden Sonra" ("After Work"), RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service Shaazka Beyerle, Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and Senior Advisor with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics

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