By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
TASHKENT/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) -- A court in Uzbekistan on Tuesday, May 1, began hearing evangelical Pastor Dmitri (David) Shestakov's appeal against his sentence to four-years in one of Uzbekistan's open labor camps on controversial "religious extremism charges," Christians close to the case said.
Pastor Shestakov, 38, was recently sentenced on charges of "incitement to religious hatredâ€, "running an illegal religious organization" and "distributing materials promoting religious extremism", in Uzbekistan, advocacy group Barnabas Fund told BosNewsLife. It was not immediately clear when the Court of Appeal would make a ruling.
Shestakov was captured January 21 by secret police who visited him in his thriving Full Gospel Church in the tense town of Andijan, fellow Christians said earlier.
His supporters have linked the detention to his involvement in distributing Christian literature and concerns among authorities about the "many people" who become Christians in his Andijan church.
The trial of another pastor, 32-year-old Salavat Serikbaev, who was held on similar "religious extremism" charges, was to start Wednesday, May 2, added the group which has close contacts with reportedly persecuted Christians.
Serikbaev, pastor of the evangelical Bethel Church, was reportedly arrested in Muynak a city in Uzbekistanâ€™s troubled region of Karakalpakstan last month, but later allowed to temporarily return to his family.
Uzbek law forbids unregistered religious meetings. Protestant denominations along with all other non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups have been denied registration in Karakalpakstan, essentially outlawing their existence, church observers say.
Believers have linked the pastors' trials concern among Muslim leaders and officials to the spread of Christianity in areas where the pastors work. Barnabas Fund said it urged supporters to pray that Pastor's Shestakov's sentence will be "overturned" and that Pastor Serikbaev would be found "not guilty."
The group warned that the cases could otherwise "set a precedent for the treatment of other Christian leaders in Uzbekistan." The pastors cases also underscored President Islam Karimov perceived fear of religious and political threats to his power base.
In 2005 at least hundreds of people died as security forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrators in Andijan. Karimov has dominated the countryâ€™s leadership since 1989 when he rose to be Communist Party leader in then Soviet Uzbekistan.
News of the trials came as a court in Tashkent sentenced independent journalist Umida Niyazova to seven years in prison. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Uzbek Service (RFE/RL) reported.
Prosecutors reportedly asked the court for an eight-year term on charges of "illegal border crossing, carrying contraband, and fostering unrest" with foreign funding.
"Umida Niyazova should never have been arrested in the first place, and she should never have been tried on these politically motivated charges," Human Rights Watch official Rachel Denber told the US-funded network. "And we call on the Uzbek authorities to release her immediately."
"Umida's prosecution -- and the prosecution of 14 other human rights defenders who are currently in prison in Uzbekistan -- clearly demonstrates that the government wants to silence critical voices, that it is trying to clamp down rather than develop a civil society," she added.
Niyazova has 10 days to appeal the sentence, RFE/RL said. (With BosNewsLife Monioring and BosNewsLife Research).
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