"They used these administrative offenses as a pretext to kick the pastor out of the country," Kazakh human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis told the Forum 18 News Service on October 3. "It is a violation of the principle of proportionality and a misuse of justice."
These and other similar cases highlight the growing official intolerance in the region of any religious activity outside state-sponsored Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, as Kyrgyzstan considers following Kazakhstan in cracking down harder on religious activity.
Li, 34, led a local congregation of the Grace Protestant church in Borovoe, north of the Kazakh capital, Astana. He had moved to Kazakhstan from elsewhere in Central Asia in March 2005 and had a Kazakh residence permit valid until 2020, according to court documents seen by Forum 18, a Norway-based news service focused on freedom of religion named after Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Li was put on a flight out of Kazakhstan in July.
"They found a legal way to deport Vyacheslav," Li's wife Bota said. "They didn't want to show it was because of his religious activity. It was all done very professionally."
Of the eight misdemeanors for which Li was deported, four were for driving offenses, two were for failing to report his trips abroad to the Kazakh authorities, and one was a tax offense. He was also fined as the leader of his church for inadequate fire safety. He paid the fine in all cases and did not appeal any of the charges.
When asked by Forum 18 whether it was proportionate to deport a longtime resident over misdemeanors or whether his religious affiliation played any role, the presiding judge and local police commander both simply said that "all was done in accordance with the law."
As Zhovtis noted: "This is a typical religious case. If everyone who was fined for minor violations of traffic rules in Kazakhstan were to be deported, there would be practically no foreigners left."
In a pair of recent related cases, a Baptist pastor was deported in mid-August for leading a registered religious community, which the authorities described as "illegal missionary activity." Prior to that, a Muslim was fined and deported to his home country in Central Asia for occasionally leading prayers in his local mosque without being personally registered as a "missionary."
This follows a move by Kazakhstan's Agency on Religions late last year to drastically reduce the number of religious denominations operating in the country. It said that following a reregistration process one-third of all religious groups in Kazakhstan had been shut down.
Kazakhstan has faced criticism for its growing intolerance of religious freedom by such groups as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
Fears of religious extremism are said to be behind the crackdown, following what was described as the first-ever suicide bombing in Kazakhstan in May 2011. But it seems to have widened into suspicion of any religious activity outside of traditional, state-sponsored Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church.
And Kazakhstan is not alone in the region, with southern neighbor Kyrgyzstan also having cracked down on religious groups outside the state-backed norms.
This week, the Kyrgyz government proposed tightening the administrative punishment for illegal missionary and religious propaganda, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports. According to the proposed changes, the government would fine religious institutions for tithing and would punish the conversion of believers of one confession to another. The government also proposed that preaching in kindergartens, schools, and universities be outlawed.
It is unclear if the legislation will be approved.
One recurring example is the long-running campaign against the London-based group Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Sunni political organization that seeks to unite all Muslim countries into an Islamic caliphate. It is banned by governments across the former Soviet Union, though it says it does not advocate violence or terrorism.
In the latest case, a court in the eastern Kyrgyz city of Naryn sentenced one of the group's regional leaders, 37-year-old Bakyt Zhumadilov, to seven years in a maximum-security prison for "inciting religious hatred" and "distributing extremist materials." This followed the arrests of three active members of the group in the region. Most Hizb ut-Tahrir activity had previously been confined to the south of the country.
Another group that has faced persecution in Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere in the region, are the Jehovah's Witnesses. Early this year, eight meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses were raided by police and security forces who said they were illegal because the group is not registered. "It is absurd that this is taking place considering the many attempts by Jehovah's Witnesses to obtain registration," the group complained to Forum 18.
Jehovah's Witnesses has also faced harassment in Tajikistan, where it was banned in 2007, because the group's literature attacks other religions, since its members actively proselytize and have prayer meetings in their homes rather than in designated buildings. Mormons are also banned in Tajikistan, and a number of Baptist churches have been closed.
-- Dan Wisniewski