A jailed Christian pastor in Kazakhstan accused of using mind-altering drinks to pry donations from a member of his congregation has gone on a hunger strike to protest his treatment by authorities.
Bakhtzhan Kashkumbaev announced in a letter on July 18 that he was launching a hunger strike. The action came amid reports that authorities were planning to transfer him to a psychiatric facility to undergo a compulsory mental-health examination.
The pastor says the examination is aimed at locking him up in a psychiatric hospital.
The 67-year-old Kashkumbaev was arrested in May on charges of "intentionally inflicting serious harm" on the health of a member of his Blagodat Baptist church two years ago. If found guilty, he could face up to seven years in prison.
Kazakhstan has Central Asia's largest population of evangelical Christian Baptists, estimated at more than 10,000. Kashkumbaev, an ethnic Kazakh and Christian convert, has been a pastor at the church in Astana since 1995.
According to Kashkumbaev's arrest order, he is accused of exerting "psychological influence" on church member Lyazzat Almenova through the use of mind-altering drinks, sermons, and prayers in order to compel her to donate money to the church.
Kazakh media have reported that testing revealed that the mind-altering drink in question turned out to be red tea purchased from local suppliers.
Both Kashkumbaev and the 34-year-old Almenova deny the charges, which stem from a complaint filed by Almenova's mother in 2011. In July of that year, Almenova's mother alleged that her daughter became schizophrenic as a result of Kashkumbaev's religious services.
Countering her mother's claims, Almenova reportedly told Astana prosecutors that she was "perfectly healthy" and that the pastor had "done nothing" to damage her health.
The Kazakh authorities, however, continued their criminal investigation and in May charged Kashkumbaev and took him into custody. Investigators recently ordered Kashkumbaev to undergo a mental-health assessment.
Investigators say a preliminary medical test in Astana revealed that he suffered from mental-health problems. Kashkumbaev was subsequently transferred to Almaty pending more checkups in that city's psychiatric hospital.
In a letter made public through his defense lawyer, Kashkumbaev says the authorities must have realized that the criminal case against him "is going nowhere" and thus came up with the idea of sending him for psychiatric evaluation.
Aleksei Orishenko, the head of the facility holding Kashkumbaev in Almaty, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that he had no knowledge of Kashkumbaev's hunger strike.
"He didn't talk about it here, he didn't write about it," Orishenko said.
He confirmed that Kashkumbaev's transfer to the psychiatric hospital was imminent.
In May, Kazakh authorities forced jailed rights activist and journalist Aleksandr Kharlamov to undergo a mental-health assessment in Almaty. Kharlamov, an atheist accused of inciting religious hatred, spent a month at the psychiatric institution.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondents Kazis Toguzbaev and Erden Karsybekov