Imprisoned pastor transferred to harsher camp in Uzbekistan

Thursday, June 14, 2007

By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN (ANS) -- After twice being punished in the isolation cell in his open work camp near Tashkent, imprisoned Pentecostal pastor Dmitry Shestakov is being transferred to a harsher labor camp to serve the rest of his punishment.

According to Felix Corley, writing for the Forum 18 News Service ( , the May 25 court verdict alleges that "Cunning by nature, he does not keep his promises. He (Shestakov)does not repent for the crime he has committed."

Shestakov, who leads a church in Andijan in the Fergana Valley, is to be transferred to a labor camp in Navoi, further from his wife and their three children. One Protestant told Forum 18 the harsher punishment against Shestakov was "deliberately set up". Officials at the government's Religious Affairs Committee declined to discuss his case with Forum 18. Two members of Shestakov's congregation have already been fined, with others facing administrative cases.

Given a four-year sentence in an open work camp on March 9 to punish him for his religious activity, Pentecostal pastor Dmitry Shestakov has been transferred to serve the rest of his sentence in a closed labor camp.

"The authorities claim he misbehaved in the open work camp and that's why they ordered his transfer to a harsher camp," one Protestant who preferred not to be identified for fear of reprisals told Forum 18 News Service on June 12. "We believe this was deliberately set up."

Shestakov's transfer to a harsher labor camp comes as further administrative trials are being prepared against members of his embattled congregation in his home town of Andijan [Andijon] in the Fergana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan. Moves against other Protestant churches continue elsewhere in Uzbekistan.

Reached by Forum 18 on June 12, an official of the government's Religious Affairs Committee in the capital Tashkent, who would not give his name, declined to discuss Shestakov's increased punishment -- or wider recent moves against Protestants. He said that the committee chairman, Artyk Usupov, was away on a work trip and put the phone down.

Judge B. Ergashev handed down the harsher punishment on Shestakov at a new trial on May 25 at Pskent district criminal court near the capital Tashkent, as the verdict, of which Forum 18 has seen the text, reveals.

Protestant sources told the news service that in the wake of the verdict, Shestakov was due for transfer to the closed ordinary regime labor camp UYa 64/29, known as the "red zone," in the central Uzbek town of Navoi [Nawoiy]. A "red zone" is normally where former law enforcement personnel are imprisoned. "His relatives have not been informed about this, they still don't know which prison he is being held in," one Protestant told Forum 18 on June 12 from Tashkent. The news service has been unable to find out if Shestakov has already been transferred from the open work camp in Pskent to Navoi.

Imprisonment in Navoi takes Shestakov even further away from his wife Marina and their three children in Andijan, Corley says.

The 38-year-old Shestakov, also known as David, has led a Full Gospel congregation in part of the family home in Andijan since 2003. He was arrested by the National Security Service (NSS) secret police during his church's Sunday service on January 21. The trial revealed the extent of state surveillance of his church and the collaboration of numerous state agencies in ensuring his conviction.

Corley writes that on March 16 Shestakov lodged an appeal against his conviction, but is said to have renounced his right to an appeal shortly afterwards. Forum 18 has been unable to determine if he did so voluntarily.

Shestakov was held at Andijan's main prison before being sent to an open labour camp at Pskent, 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of Tashkent, arriving on May 7. The verdict at his 25 May trial reveals his repeated punishment in the Pskent camp. The day after he arrived he was given a five-day term in the camp isolation cell for "violation of the internal regulations". On May 14, the day after he was freed, he was given ten days in the isolation cells on the same accusation.

The verdict said Shestakov had taken part in educational events at the camp "but failed to draw the conclusions for himself."It said he also failed to take part in his brigade's social activities. "Cunning by nature, he does not keep his promises," the verdict alleged. "He does not repent for the crime he has committed."

Shestakov is unable to appeal against this verdict. Only the prosecutor is allowed to challenge it, Corley says.

Meanwhile, Protestant sources told Forum 18 that two members of Shestakov's congregation have already been fined under the Code of Administrative Offences, while others face continuing investigation. On May 16 Judge T. Melibayev at Andijan Criminal Court found Igor Von and Sherzodbek Ismailov guilty of violating Article 197 of the Administrative Code, which punishes "obstruction of the legal activity of a prosecutor and failure to fulfil his orders". They were each fined 24,840 Sums (120 Norwegian Kroner, 15 Euros or 20 US Dollars).

M. Mamadaliev, a senior aide to the Andijan City Prosecutor, began summoning church members for questioning on April 5. At least 14 have since been summoned, though many refused to attend, regarding the summonses as illegal. Mamadaliev and officers of the National Security Service (NSS) secret police have visited the registered Jesus Christ Full Gospel church, a congregation associated with Shestakov's, to put pressure on the pastor.

The Andijan authorities' determination to crush what it regards as Pentecostal missionary activity in the region is clear from a leaked document from the Andijan regional Hokimat (administration) seen by Forum 18.

One local Protestant, who asked not to be identified, attributed Shestakov's harsh punishment to the strong influence of Islam in the Fergana Valley, including on state officials. "Such people regard anyone who converts from a Muslim background as a traitor," the Protestant told Forum 18 on June 12. "They are trying to stop Christian preaching through intimidation and, if that doesn't work, driving out those who continue to try to preach."

The Protestant complained of state-inspired hostility to religious minorities -- including Protestants -- in the state-run media, says Corley.

"The government is stirring up this inter-religious hostility through television and the press. It is creating the same atmosphere as in Turkey, which led to the murder of three Christians [in Malatya in April]. I fear the same thing could happen here," the Protestant told Corley.