USCIRF Annual Report 2009 - Additional Countries Closely Monitored: Kazakhstan
|Publisher||United States Commission on International Religious Freedom|
|Publication Date||1 May 2009|
|Cite as||United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2009 - Additional Countries Closely Monitored: Kazakhstan, 1 May 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a4f27280.html [accessed 23 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Kazakhstan's record on religious freedom and related human rights has come under increasing international scrutiny because in 2010 it will serve as Chair of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Kazakh government had been noted for its relatively good human rights record and tolerant policies towards its more than 90 ethnic minorities. In recent years, however, the country's civil society sector, particularly independent journalists and members of the political opposition, has come under increasing pressure. Moreover, the government's recent efforts to amend the country's religion law threatened increased official control over Kazakhstan's highly diverse religious communities.
In late 2008, Kazakhstan's parliament passed highly restrictive amendments to the country's religion law. The amendments established more restrictive registration procedures and required all existing religious groups to re-register; prohibited proselytism and the production of religious literature; prohibited groups from maintaining worship facilities open to the public; and significantly increased fines and penalties for violations of the law. According to Kazakh human rights activists, these amendments originated in the office of the Kazakh Presidential Administration. Kazakh human rights defenders, as well as Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Hare Krishna, and Baptist representatives, expressed concern over the amendments.
International experts also expressed concern. The OSCE's Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief (the Panel) analyzed two versions of the amendments and found "many serious compliance issues with human rights standards, including OSCE commitments." The Kazakh government, which had requested the Panel's analysis, refused to publish its findings, claiming that this was done at the request of the OSCE; OSCE officials, however, publicly refuted this claim. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion or Belief also concluded that the amendments "would impose undue restrictions on freedom of religion or belief." Her concerns included the ban on unregistered religious activity; the restrictions on missionary activity; the controls on the distribution of religious materials; the "theological analysis" of registration applications; the ban on private religious education; "vague provisions" giving rise to possible "abusive interpretation and discrimination" by law enforcement agencies; and the lack of "public and open debate" about the proposed law.
On February 12, 2009, Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council declared the amendments unconstitutional. The Constitutional Council's Chair stated that the proposals violated the constitutional principle of equality before the law by setting different registration conditions for religions "previously unknown in Kazakhstan" and not affording legal residents the same rights as citizens. Nevertheless, some Kazakh officials reportedly still treat the overturned amendments as valid, and Kazakh human rights activists claim that the government will enact the changes after Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship in 2010.
The constitution defines Kazakhstan as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion. Under 2005 amendments to the country's religion law, religious organizations must register both with the national and regional Ministry of Justice offices. Unregistered religious activity is an administrative offense, and the authorities may suspend the activities or impose fines on the leaders of unregistered groups. To register, a religious organization is required to have at least 10 members and to submit an application to the Ministry of Justice; registration may be denied if the organization lacks sufficient membership or if its charter violates the law. If literature has not been vetted during the registration process, it is deemed illegal. Foreigners may register religious organizations, but Kazakh citizens must comprise the majority of the 10 founders.
Under the current religion law, a religious organization whose charter includes religious education may be denied registration if it does not obtain approval from the Ministry of Education. Religious instruction is not permitted in public schools, but parents may enroll children in supplemental religious classes provided by registered religious organizations. Neither law nor regulation prohibits foreign missionary activity, although foreign missionaries are required to register annually with the Justice Ministry and provide data on religious affiliation, geographic area, and duration of stay, as well as on all religious literature. "The religion laws narrow the legal protections of religious freedom found in the Constitution," the State Department reported in 2008.
The National Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan (SAMK), headed by the Chief Mufti, exerts significant influence over the country's practice of Islam, including selecting imams and regulating the construction of mosques. In 2002, however, the Kazakh Constitutional Council ruled against a proposed legal requirement that the SAMK must approve the registration of any Muslim group. Nevertheless, the SAMK reportedly occasionally pressures non-aligned imams and congregations to join it, but, according to the State Department, the Kazakh government continues to register some mosques and Muslim communities not affiliated with the SAMK.
The Law on Extremism, effective since February 2005, gives the government wide latitude to identify and designate religious or other groups as extremist organizations, to ban a designated group's activities, and to criminalize membership in a banned organization. Government officials have expressed concern about possible political and religious extremism, particularly in southern Kazakhstan, where many Uzbeks reside. The Kazakh government has imprisoned individuals alleged to be members of certain Muslim groups, including some groups that espouse extremist political agendas. For example, in 2007 65 individuals in the cities of Karaganda, Stepnogorsk, and Shymkent were sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment in secret trials for alleged membership in various Muslim groups. Human rights groups have expressed concerns that the government has also used this law to punish non-extremist Muslims for independent views. Kazakh civil society activists maintain that due process is not followed in many of these trials, and that police, investigatory, and judicial officials have not provided public access either to trials or to information about these cases. Indeed, according to some leading Kazakh human rights activists, as many as 300 Muslim individuals may be imprisoned in Kazakhstan on religion-related charges. Due to the lack of information, however, it is impossible to ascertain the veracity of these claims.
The government's 2007-2009 "Program for Ensuring Religious Freedom and Improvement of Relations between the Government and Religions" outlined plans for "increasing the stability of the religious situation" and called for new laws to increase control over activities by foreign religious workers and the dissemination of religious materials. Two official documents issued in April 2007 give rise to concern: the "State Program of Patriotic Education," approved by presidential decree, and a Justice Ministry booklet, "How not to fall under the influence of religious sects" which includes the claim that "transferring to other religious faiths represents treason to one's country and faith."
Statements by Kazakh authorities that single out certain minority religious groups officially viewed as "sects" or "non-traditional," including Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishnas, have created a hostile public atmosphere. In early 2008, President Nursultan Nazarbayev publicly criticized foreign religious workers, saying that they should not be allowed to operate freely, as "we don't know their purposes and intentions." He also declared that "religion is separate from the state, but it does not mean that Kazakhstan should become a dumping ground for various religious movements." The President has not retracted these remarks, and since the speech, there has been a marked increase in governmental restrictions targeting unregistered and minority religious communities.
At an April 2008 press conference, an official Kazakh spokesperson claimed that 40,000 adherents of 1,870 religious organizations, including Scientologists and the New Life Church, represented a national security threat. In February 2008, the national Express-K newspaper interviewed a Kazakh secret service officer who described the dangers of what he called "sects," claimed that foreign intelligence agents may work undercover as "missionaries," and equated new Christian and Buddhist organizations with Islamic extremists. In early 2008, several media outlets published or broadcast stories critical of "nontraditional" religious groups such as evangelical Protestant Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, and Hare Krishnas, depicting them as dangerous "sects."
Nevertheless, in practice, most minority religious communities registered with the government without difficulty, although some Protestant groups and other groups viewed by officials as non-traditional have experienced long delays. There were no reported incidents of official anti-Semitism. Although local officials may attempt to limit the practice of religion by some "non-traditional" groups, higher-level officials or courts, at least until recently, have usually overturned such attempts.
Members of unregistered religious communities, including the Council of Churches Baptists, who refuse on principle to register any of their congregations with the state, continue to face official harassment. In a notable case, authorities fined the pastor of a Council of Churches Baptist congregation in the Akmola region for unregistered religious activity, and in February 2009, a court order permanently banned his church – the first time that such a ban has been imposed in Kazakhstan. Council of Churches Baptist churches also continue to report surveillance, secret recordings of services and sermons, raids, short-term detentions, and court-ordered fines for unregistered religious activity, which they usually refuse to pay. In February 2009, Pastor Yuri Rudenko from the Almaty region was jailed for three days for refusing to pay fines for unregistered worship and his musical instruments were confiscated. Authorities have raided Baptist churches in the Akmola region and their members have been interrogated.
Other unregistered Protestant communities are increasingly subject to official harassment. In November 2008, officers from the Aktobe city Department for the Struggle against Extremism, Separatism, and Terrorism raided a restaurant dinner held by members of the New Life Church, Forum 18 reported. Several months earlier, the New Life Church had been evicted from its church building and was attempting to obtain an official permit to purchase land on which to build a church. In October 2008, police raided the Sunday service of a small unregistered Protestant Church in Kazakhstan's Kyzylorda region.
Although the Hare Krishna movement is registered at the national and local levels, its leaders report continuing harassment, dating back to an April 2006 appeals court decision that the community's farm outside Almaty must revert to the county government, allegedly because the farmer from whom the Hare Krishnas bought the land in 1999 did not hold title. The government has ordered the community to leave the farm by March 1, 2009, and to take as compensation a garbage dump without irrigation or potable water, or face new legal proceedings. Moreover, on January 27, 2009, a Hare Krishna leader, Govinda Swami, an American citizen, was denied entry into Kazakhstan, reportedly because he was on an entry blacklist. One month later, however, Kazakh officials allowed Govinda Swami to re-enter the country, RFE/RL Kazakh Service reported.
The national Jehovah's Witnesses Religious Center alleged that local officials harass its communities. Reportedly, a local religious affairs official told Jehovah's Witnesses not to go to Atyrau because "that's where Muslims live." It also has been reported that for seven years, the Justice Ministry in Atyrau has used minor technical infractions to deny numerous registration applications of the local Jehovah's Witness community. In January 2009, however, a court in the southern city of Kentau closed a case against the Jehovah's Witnesses and later the local government head cancelled a 2008 decision alleging violation of rules for the use of a building for religious purposes. Nevertheless, the Jehovah's Witnesses reported in mid-February that they are still waiting for official authorization to use the house.
As of July 2008, the Kazakh Ministry of Justice reported that 362 foreign religious workers of various denominations were present in Kazakhstan. Several groups reported difficulty in registering foreign religious workers, while others reported greater difficulties than in previous years with the issuance of visas, denials of special visas, or shorter-term visas. In 2008, the Kazakh Justice Minister is reported to have said that "a large number of foreigners from the United States, Georgia, South Korea, and Japan were expelled from the country by law enforcement authorities after courts have ruled that they violated regulations because they worked as missionaries without the required registration."
In January 2009, a court in Almaty sentenced Elizaveta Drenicheva, a Russian citizen, to two years in a general regime labor camp for teaching Unification Church beliefs at private seminars. Drenicheva was convicted under a criminal law provision prohibiting "incitement to social, national, racial or religious hatred." In March 2009, Drenicheva's prison term was commuted to a fine of 25 times the minimum monthly wage, approximately $211. Since she had already served two months' imprisonment, she will not have to pay the fine, but she will still have a criminal record. Her case has been perceived by human rights groups as an official warning on the strict limits to officially tolerated activities.
On the international level, however, the Kazakh government has organized events to showcase what it views as its record of official religious tolerance. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has hosted two conferences attended by hundreds of leaders of religious communities from around the world; a third such conference is planned for July 2009. In February 2009 several official Kazakh organizations and the OSCE Astana Center hosted a meeting for several representatives of registered religious organizations and civil society groups, as well as the diplomatic community, on Kazakhstan's "unique experience of interethnic and interdenominational accord."
Despite such official Kazakh promotion, the Commission believes that, in view of Kazakhstan's upcoming OSCE chairmanship, the Kazakh government should publicly clarify its actual policies on human rights, including on freedom of religion or belief, and ensure that its laws conform to OSCE and other international commitments. Such official clarifications are particularly necessary in light of President Nazarbayev's hostile public statements about various religious groups and the Kazakh government's publications along these lines. Moreover, even though the Constitutional Council has rejected the restrictive draft religion law as unconstitutional, Kazakh law enforcement bodies reportedly have undertaken repressive actions against various religious groups that fly in the face of that constitutional ruling. Finally, the Commission calls on the Kazakh government to include relevant government officials and Kazakh legal and other experts in official exchange programs and to allow them to participate in international conferences, particularly those of the OSCE.