Uzbekistan: "Lenient" Court Ruling for Protestant Pastor, But Registration No Nearer

Sunday, August 11, 2002

by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service

Perhaps because of international reporting on the case, a court in Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan, has handed down what many regard as a "lenient" sentence against the leader of a local Protestant church. Members of the "Mir" (Peace) Protestant church, which lost its state registration in 2000, went on trial on 7 June accused under the administrative code of conducting an unlawful service, Keston News Service learnt from local Protestants. The court confined itself to giving a warning to the church's pastor, Khym- Moon Kim, that under Uzbekistan's religion law unregistered religious organisations are forbidden to hold meetings. However, the ruling brings legal existence for the church no nearer, as local officials simply continue to ignore the church's application to regain its registration.

On 25 May employees of the Karakalpakstan Ministry of Internal Affairs raided a service of the "Mir" church and ordered that the service be halted. They also demanded that residents of local nationalities (Karakalpaks, Kazakhs and Uzbeks) who had participated in the service should write statements explaining what had prompted them to attend a Christian service (see KNS 30 May 2002). Those present were warned that they would be summoned to appear in court, and this took place on 7 June.

The court's decision contrasts with a recent ruling by the same court against another unregistered Protestant church in Nukus. On 16 May, four members of the New Life (Novaya Zhizn) Church were fined between 19,000 (26 US dollars or 18 British pounds) and 27,000 sum (37 USD or 25 GBP) for a similar offence under article 240 of the administrative code, which punishes "violation of the law on religious organisations" (see KNS 6 June 2002).

The fact that members of the Mir church were not fined, as had been expected, may have been due to the fact that the republic and city authorities were aware that international organisations, including Keston News Service, were monitoring the case. Keston spoke on 27 May by telephone with the head of the department for the battle against terrorism at Karakalpakstan's Ministry of Internal Affairs, Shamurat Sapartayev, and on 28 May met the acting chairman of Nukus city court, Aibek Tureyev. Subsequently, Keston's correspondent was placed under surveillance (see KNS 6 June 2002).

Despite the unexpectedly lenient court ruling, Pastor Kim feels no sense of optimism. "In effect, we have fallen into a trap and do not know what lies ahead for us," he told Keston by telephone from Nukus on 11 June. "We are accused of holding a service without having been registered. But we have submitted all the documents required for registration, and yet the authorities are dragging their heels and will not give us a reply."

The church submitted its documents to the Ministry of Justice some two months ago and a month ago received a reply instructing it to agree the membership of the Church Council with the representative of the department for religious affairs at Karakalpakstan's Cabinet of Ministers, Khuseidin Khamidov.

Pastor Kim told Keston he had then given Khamidov a piece of paper with the names of the Church Council members, but he simply ignored the document. However, when Keston spoke with Khamidov on 29 May, he denied that he had received any such document. According to Khamidov, he had nothing to do with the registration application, and members of the church should appeal to the Committee for Religious Affairs at the Cabinet of Ministers in the Uzbek capital Tashkent.

"We are in a very difficult position," Pastor Kim told Keston. "If we were simply refused registration we could try to appeal against that decision. But Khamidov simply ignores us."