Uzbekistan: Pastor Condemned to Four Years in Uzbek Gulag

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lawyer protests ‘illegal’ verdict and mishandling of Dmitry Shestakov’s case.

ISTANBUL, March 14 (Compass Direct News) -- An Uzbek criminal court has sentenced Christian pastor Dmitry Shestakov to four years in a prison colony for alleged “illegal” religious activities.

Judge M. Tulanov of the Andijan Criminal Court handed down the harsh verdict against Shestakov on Friday (March 9), nearly three weeks after his trial began in the Ferghana Valley region of eastern Uzbekistan.

Yesterday one of the nation’s leading evangelical pastors said Shestakov’s unexpected conviction could have “grave consequences” for Protestant Christians in Uzbekistan.

“Perhaps it already has,” the pastor told Compass, saying that over the past weekend, many more incidents had been initiated against Christians in a number of places across the country. “Some serious things are taking place in different regions,” he said, declining to give precise details.

Shestakov, 37, was accused in January by state prosecutors of operating an illegal religious organization, distributing materials promoting religious extremism and inciting religious hatred. Although the court has yet to issue its written verdict, the third charge was apparently dropped during trial proceedings.

An evangelical pastor affiliated with the legally registered Full Gospel Church, Shestakov was arrested in a January 21 police raid on his church in Andijan.

Shestakov has denied all the accusations, maintaining his innocence throughout his interrogations and the trial proceedings.

Forgiving Accusers

After hearing the verdict, Shestakov “told the court that despite the tears of his wife and children, he forgives those who have taken action against him,” Forum 18 News reported on Friday (March 9).

But Shestakov’s lawyer declared the verdict “illegal,” insisting that his client was legally eligible for release under President Islam Karimov’s general amnesty declared on November 30 of last year. Issued on the occasion of the nation’s 15th anniversary of independence, the amnesty reduced the length of certain jail sentences and cancelled the remaining prison terms of some penal colony inmates.

He also protested numerous infractions of Uzbek law committed by officials from the Andijan prosecutor’s office, police department and Department of Justice, accusing them of concocting falsified information and even forging a number of documents.

Although Shestakov’s attorney tried to launch a criminal case against four prosecution and police officials whom he named in his accusations, Judge Tulanov rejected his petition. The judge also refused the lawyer’s attempt during his final summation on March 7 to charge eight prosecution witnesses for giving false testimony.

In one glaring violation of Uzbek law, two investigators from the local prosecutor’s office sent the “evidence” against the pastor – videos of his sermons and various religious CDs, tapes and printed literature confiscated by police – to professors in the history department of Andijan State University for their “expert opinion” on possible criminal content.

But according to an April 23, 2004 decree from Uzbekistan’s Cabinet of Ministers cited by Shestakov’s lawyer, only the national Committee on Religious Affairs has judicial authority to evaluate the contents of religious materials.

Defense Evidence Ignored

On its official Press-Uz.Info website, the Uzbekistan government had claimed prior to the trial that Shestakov was not an authorized leader of any officially recognized religious organization. The state news agency identified him as an “imposter” leading an underground group engaged in “missionary and proselytizing activities.”

To refute this, a document was presented to the court proving that the pastor had been authorized to conduct official worship services in the Full Gospel Church since October 2004, along with a notarized copy of the local church’s official property deed. Both were ignored in the final judgment.

Shestakov is expected to remain in the Andijan Prison, where he has been jailed for the past six weeks, until authorities select the prison settlement where he will serve his four-year sentence. Uzbekistan maintains an undisclosed number of penal colonies patterned on the former Soviet Union’s gulag system, which subjected prisoners to hard labor in remote areas.

“It is the easiest regime, but still considered a prison,” a long-time resident of Uzbekistan told Compass.

All prisoners are assigned to work seven days a week, either in nearby factories or at a variety of agricultural or construction jobs. Depending on the nature of the crimes of which they are convicted, they are required to register either daily or weekly with colony officials.

They are allowed one 24-hour private visit in a designated room once a month, as well as occasional short visits after working hours. At the discretion of the prison camp commander, prisoners’ families are sometimes allowed to live with them within the parameters of the fenced territory, where they can raise cattle and vegetables to supplement the minimal food allowance provided by the camp.

Shestakov and his wife Marina have three young daughters; the oldest is 13 years old.

Withholding Medicine

Although Shestakov has high blood pressure and a history of heart problems, local sources told Compass that prison authorities have refused to give him any of his medicines brought to the prison by his family.

Shestakov’s January arrest and criminal trial was linked to a previous raid on his home and church in June 2006, launched in apparent reaction to reports that ethnic Uzbeks were converting to Christianity through his ministry in Andijan. Shestakov’s 100-member congregation worships in both Russian and Uzbek and includes citizens of both ethnic backgrounds.

Alarmed by verbal warnings right after the raid that the regional prosecutor was planning to accuse him of committing high treason, Shestakov and his family went into hiding last summer in order to avoid possible arrest. But after several months they returned to the region, and last November Shestakov resumed his open pastoral ministry in the city.

When weeks went by and the authorities did not approach Shestakov or interfere in his church’s activities, the pastor and his congregation had assumed that no formal charges were held against him.

The Uzbek regime has become increasingly heavy-handed against open religious activities during the past year, cracking down particularly on Protestant Christian and Muslim groups.

Punishing new restrictions have been introduced for involvement in “unregistered” worship, religious activities or the possession and distribution of religious literature, and it is strictly forbidden to persuade members of a different religious community to convert to another faith.

Copyright © 2007 Compass Direct