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According to Kazakhstan's Administrative Code, the distribution of religious literature is only allowed in prayer houses, such as mosques or registered churches, and a few other designated places. (file photo)

ASTANA -- A Baptist minister in Kazakhstan is in a standoff that could cost him his home and prison time if he so much as attends a classical-music concert or a wedding reception of a couple he has just married.

That's because Yury Bekker has refused to pay court-ordered administrative fines after authorities say he violated the country's administrative code on religion by handing out pamphlets and Bible passages on the street.

Bekker's act of defiance against what he says are unjust laws means he now has a criminal record for "defying court orders."

His house in the tiny village of Zaporozhye has been temporarily impounded by the state, and he could lose it permanently in the same way the authorities in other countries confiscate the property of convicted drug dealers.

Last month, Zhaqsy district court Judge Ghalia Baqtyghulova convicted Bekker under Kazakhstan's Criminal Code and placed him for one year on a parole-like status called "limitation of freedom" -- a sentence usually imposed against people convicted for hooliganism or possession of illegal drugs.

Bekker's parole conditions stipulate that he cannot attend an "entertainment event" such as a concert or a wedding party.

He also cannot change his home address or workplace without informing his parole officer.

A violation of those conditions could get Bekker evicted from his home and imprisoned until his parole period ends in November 2018.

Evangelistic Street Work

The saga for Bekker, a 53-year-old minister from the Church of Evangelical Baptist Christians, began when he was handing out pamphlets and copies of the Bible's Gospel According To John near a market in Kazakhstan's north-central aluminum-mining town of Arqalyq.

The Union of Evangelical Baptists of Kazkhstan says Bekker was speaking about Christianity to people near the market, handing them pamphlets titled The Word Of Life and The Important Truth Of Life, and distributing the Gospel According To John.

According to Kazakhstan's Administrative Code, the distribution of religious literature is only allowed in prayer houses such as mosques or registered churches, in public spaces next to them, at registered religious schools, or in bookshops authorized by local authorities to distribute religious literature.

It is also forbidden for any group to import, or produce and distribute, religious literature without the approval of Kazakhstan's Committee for Religious Affairs and Civil Society.

Bekker's church does not have that approval and he was detained near the Arqalyq market by police who confiscated his literature as evidence.

The next day, after Bekker was released from custody, authorities stopped and searched his car, confiscating more of the church's pamphlets.

In March 2016, Bekker received an administrative fine of 74,000 tenges (about $215) plus an additional 13,000-tenge charge to cover the expense of "linguistic forensics" -- the interpretation of his brochures provided by state experts.

But Bekker refused to pay the administrative fine, claiming that to do so would violate his religious freedom and his religious beliefs.

'I Am Not Guilty'

In November 2016, the Zhaqsy district court found Bekker guilty on an administrative charge of refusing to pay the fine. The court fined him an additional 21,000 tenges.

His house was impounded in July 2016, though he is still allowed to live there as long as he doesn't violate the conditions of his parole.

Bekker's criminal conviction on October 31 was for refusing to obey the court's second fine.

"I refused and I continue to refuse to pay these fines because I am not guilty," Bekker told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service in mid-November, arguing that the "linguistic forensics" didn't find anything illegal or extremist in the literature that he and his group distributes.

"They kept saying, 'Just pay the fine,'" Bekker said. "But if I pay the fine, it means that I'm admitting I am guilty."

"I am not guilty," Bekker said. "I think I was doing everything according to my conscience, and as God has instructed -- to go around the world and spread the good news" of the Christian gospels.

"That's what I was doing," he added. "I cannot go against God's word. The state authorities have laws of their own, but we also have our own laws. I am placing my destiny completely in God's hands."

Yury Rudenko, another minister from Bekker's Church of Evangelical Baptist Christians, told RFE/RL that he and other church members have been fined in the past for spreading evangelistic texts.

"Usually we refuse to pay our fines voluntarily because that means we are admitting that we are guilty," Rudenko explained.

"Almost all of us do the same," Rudenko said. "The courts then refer the cases to bailiffs who deduct the fines from state wages or pensions automatically. In most cases, that is it."

But Bekker is not a pensioner and does not hold a state job. His source of income is a small, private scrap-metal business that he runs in his village.

Strict Regulations On Religion

Making life more difficult for Bekker and his fellow believers, their Church of Evangelical Baptist Christians refuses Kazakhstan's administrative requirement that "nontraditional religions" must register with authorities -- an act that often brings churchgoers under the scrutiny of police, security officials, regional religious affairs authorities, and local government.

Kazakhstan's law on religions specifies that literature can only be imported from other countries by registered religious groups and only with the approval of the Committee on Religious Affairs.

Even for members of so-called traditional religions, travelers arriving in Kazakhstan -- whether foreigners or Kazakh citizens -- are allowed to bring one copy of a religious text into the country "for personal use." This includes Islam's Holy Koran, the Christian Bible, and Judaism's Torah.

Those who violate that provision routinely find themselves, at a minimum, facing lengthy interrogations by border officials.

Kazakh authorities say their restrictions on religion are necessary to prevent extremist Islamists from recruiting militants in the country.

But rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) say the provisions are used much more broadly and in a way that violates basic religious freedom.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in late October that greater religious freedom could actually bolster security by "creating environments of mutual respect and understanding among people of different religions or beliefs...that are essential to sustainable security in Kazakhstan."

The U.S. State Department in August expressed concern about what it called the "persecution" of "nontraditional religions in Kazakhstan."

Roman Podoprigora, an expert on humanitarian law who advises the Kazakh government and Supreme Court, said in a recent legal study about religious freedom that Kazakhstan is like most post-Soviet countries when it comes to attitudes on religious freedom and religious activities.

Podoprigora said the "very suspicious attitude" authorities have about nontraditional religions is "a relic of the Soviet regime of the state-church relationships."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service correspondent Svetlana Glushkova in Astana
The international rights organization Amnesty International has said the legislation would deal a "serious blow" to media freedom in Russia, although Russian officials have said it would not apply to domestic media.

BRUSSELS -- The European Union has criticized legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin that empowers Russia’s government to designate media outlets receiving funding from abroad as "foreign agents" and impose sanctions against them.

The new law was published on Russia's official legal information Internet portal on November 25.

Maja Kocijancic, the spokesperson of the European Commission for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, said in a November 26 statement that the "legislation goes against Russia's human rights obligations and commitments."

Kocijancic called the law "a further threat to free and independent media and access to information" and "yet another attempt to shrink the space for independent voices in Russia."

The measure was passed by Russia's Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, on November 22 in a unanimous 154-0 vote, with one abstention.

It was unanimously approved in the third and final reading in the lower house, the State Duma, on November 15. Within hours, the Justice Ministry sent warnings to several Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) news services.

The letters did not specify what potential restrictions they could face, but lawmakers have said designated media could be subjected to detailed financial-reporting requirements and required to label published material as coming from a foreign agent.

RFE/RL was among several media outlets that Russian officials warned could be labeled a foreign agent, a list that also included the Voice of America (VOA), CNN, and Germany's international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle.

In response to news that Putin signed the law, RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said, "We cannot speculate at this time on the effect of the new law, since no news organization has yet been specifically named as a 'foreign agent' and the restrictions to be imposed on such 'agents' have not been announced."

"We remain committed to continuing our journalistic work, in the interests of providing accurate and objective news to our Russian-speaking audiences," he added.

The international rights organization Amnesty International has said the legislation would deal a "serious blow" to media freedom in Russia, although Russian officials have said it would not apply to domestic media.

Russian officials have called the new legislation a "symmetrical response" to what they describe as U.S. pressure on Russian media. On November 13, the U.S. operating unit of Russian state-funded television channel RT -- a company called T&R Productions LLC -- registered in the United States under a decades-old law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The U.S. Justice Department required the RT affiliate to register in the wake of a January finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that RT and Russia's Sputnik news agency spread disinformation as part of a Russian-government effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

John Lansing, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, said in a statement on November 25 that "any characterization of such steps as reciprocity for U.S. actions severely distorts reality."

"Russian media, including RT and Sputnik, are free to operate in the United States and can be, and are, carried by U.S. cable television outlets and FM radio stations," Lansing added. "However, U.S international media, including VOA and RFE/RL, are banned from television and radio in Russia."

He also said that "our journalists on assignment are harassed by Russian authorities and face extensive restrictions on their work."

Visiting the Moscow bureau of RFE/RL and VOA on November 17, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman said that the Russian legislation was a "big concern" for the United States and that "the principles of free media in any free society and democracy are absolutely critical for strength and well-being."

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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