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Monitoring & analysis of freedom of thought, conscience & belief violations in Central Asia, Russia, South Caucasus, Belarus, Occupied Ukraine https://www.forum18.org
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#RUSSIA: 42 on wanted list for exercising freedom of religion or belief

Russia's Interior Ministry wanted list includes: 3 opponents of Russia's war against Ukraine on religious grounds; 6 Muslim Nursi readers from Russia; 16 Jehovah's Witnesses from Russia, 4 from Russian-occupied Crimea; 3 people wanted by Belarus; 3 wanted by Kazakhstan; 2 wanted by Tajikistan; 5 wanted by Uzbekistan. The Interior Ministry did not respond to Forum 18's question why it includes people who peacefully exercised their right to freedom of religion or belief. Interpol would not say for how many of them Russia had sought Red Notices.

OCCUPIED #UKRAINE: Priest killed within two days of Russian detention

On 15 February, the bruised body (possibly with a bullet-wound to the head) of 59-year-old Fr Stepan Podolchak of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was found in the streets of Kalanchak in Russian-occupied Kherson Region. The morgue called his wife to identify him. The occupation forces, who seized him two days earlier, "tortured Fr Stepan to death", says Kherson Bishop Nikodim. Forum 18 asked Kalanchak's Russian police what action they will take following his killing. "For a long time this [community] hasn't existed here and won't," the duty officer replied. "Forget about it."

#TAJIKISTAN: Criminal cases against human rights defenders, relatives threatened

Exiled human rights defenders Anora Sarkorova and her husband Rustamjon Joniyev face criminal charges, and have been placed on Russia's Federal Wanted List. Officials have threatened relatives with arrests. Both have written about the regime's multiple serious violations of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, committed against Ismaili Muslims in Mountainous Badakhshan Region. "This will not break us, and we will continue reporting on human rights violations," Sarkorova told Forum 18. In Khujand police raided a Protestant Church and are questioning its members and leaders.

#UZBEKISTAN: Large fines for sharing beliefs with permission

The regime has resumed fining people who share their faith with others. A Tashkent court fined Jehovah's Witness Nadezhda Manatskova two weeks' average wages in October 2023. The same court fined Elnora Maksutova 8 months' average wages and Marina Penkova over 5 and a half months' average wages in February 2024. In the previous last known case, a Protestant was fined in January 2019. "Members of this community are telling people to join their religion, and this cannot be accepted," says the police officer who questioned Manatskova.

#UKRAINE: Latest draft Law targets Ukrainian Orthodox Church for Russian links

On 5 March, the parliamentary Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy stated that a draft Law targeting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) for Russian links is ready for second reading, no date for which has been set. Without careful consideration and redrafting to remove the numerous human rights problems in the current draft, the Law would not implement Ukraine's legally-binding international obligations to respect and protect the freedoms of religion or belief, expression, and association.

#RUSSIA: Religious freedom survey, March 2024

Freedom of religion and belief, with interlinked freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and other fundamental freedoms remain seriously restricted in Russia. Forum 18's survey analysis documents violations including: "extremism"-related criminal prosecutions and jailings of Jehovah's Witnesses and of Muslims who meet to study the works of Said Nursi; torture, and impunity for torture; prisoners of conscience deprived of Russian citizenship and deported after their sentence; prosecuting, fining, and jailing Russians who protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine from a religious (and non-religious) perspective.

#RUSSIA: "Extremism" prosecutions of elderly Jehovah's Witnesses

Courts have convicted 467 Jehovah's Witnesses from 2017 up to 18 March 2024, and ultimately acquitted none. Over a quarter of the Jehovah's Witnesses prosecuted have been aged 60 or older, with 12 individuals aged at least 80. The sentences imposed have ranged from heavy fines to some of the longest prison terms – of 7 years or more – handed down to Jehovah's Witnesses. On 15 March, 72-year-old Sergey Vasilyev became the oldest Jehovah's Witness currently imprisoned for exercising his right to freedom of religion and belief after he was sentenced to 3 years' imprisonment.

#KYRGYZSTAN: Two Muslim men jailed for mosque closure protest

On 26 February, Kara-Suu District Court jailed prisoners of conscience Asadullo Madraimov and Mamirzhan Tashmatov for three years and two years respectively for protesting against the regime's closure of their mosque, Al-Sarakhsi Mosque. Some mosques and madrassahs, though not the Al-Sarakhsi Mosque, are known to be still closed. An appeal against the two men's jailing, filed on 27 March, should be heard by the end of May. The two prisoners of conscience remain in Osh's Investigation Prison, where they have been held since 18 October 2023.

#KAZAKHSTAN: 192 known administrative prosecutions in 2023

More than a third of the 192 known administrative prosecutions in 2023 for exercising freedom of religion or belief punished individuals for religious posts on social media without state permission. A quarter were punished for offering religious literature for sale - in shops or online - without state permission. One individual and one charity were prosecuted for having religious books, although this is not an offence. The Information and Social Development Ministry (of which the Religious Affairs Committee is a part) claimed wrongly that there were only 139 such cases in 2023.

#KAZAKHSTAN: List of 192 known 2023 administrative prosecutions

The 192 known administrative prosecutions in 2023 for exercising freedom of religion or belief are listed here. More than one third punished individuals for posting religious materials on social media without state permission. A quarter punished individuals for offering religious literature for sale - in shops or online - without state permission. One individual and one charity were prosecuted for having religious books, although this is not an offence. The Information and Social Development Ministry (of which the Religious Affairs Committee is a part) claimed wrongly that there were only 139 such cases in 2023.

OCCUPIED #UKRAINE: Espionage trial for "disappeared" Ukrainian Orthodox priest

The Russian occupation forces in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Region disappeared Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) priest Fr Kostiantyn Maksimov in May 2023. On 29 March 2024, more than 10 months later, the occupation forces' Zaporizhzhia Region Prosecutor's Office said a criminal case against him on espionage charges had been handed to court. If convicted, the 40-year-old priest faces a prison term of 10 to 12 years. "This is terrible!" said another UOC priest, Fr Vladimir Saviisky, who knew Fr Kostiantyn. "But this was to be expected."

OCCUPIED #UKRAINE: Deported priests now in Ukraine

In February and March, Russia illegally deported two Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) priests - Fr Khristofor Khrimli and Fr Andri Chui – to Georgia. Both priests were arrested and fined by occupation forces in September 2023, and then illegally taken to Russia. Elsewhere in occupied Ukraine, after an armed raid on the Sunday morning worship meeting of Krasnodon's Council of Churches Baptist congregation, Baptist Pastor and Soviet-era prisoner of conscience Vladimir Rytikov faces illegal Russian charges of "conducting missionary activity".

#RUSSIA: Archbishop fined for criticising Russia's war in Ukraine

A Krasnodar Region court found 87-year-old Archbishop Viktor Pivovarov guilty on 8 April of repeatedly "discrediting" the Russian Armed Forces. The judge fined him 8 months' local average pension. Archbishop Viktor has repeatedly condemned Russia's war against Ukraine as "aggressive" and "Satanic". Many parishioners of Holy Intercession Tikhonite Church in Slavyansk "have been scared away by recent events", says a church member. Archbishop Viktor is the fifth person criminally convicted for criticising Russia's war from a religious perspective. Many more have been punished administratively.

#UZBEKISTAN: Regime continues repeated arbitrary blocking of registration

Regime officials have repeatedly used a variety of tactics to block state registration applications from Muslim and non-Muslim religious communities. Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, and Protestants have all experienced blocking of registration attempts, and in a Jehovah's Witness case courts have backed the regime's arbitrary use of its power. "The Religion Law gives the authorities unlimited powers to refuse our registration, to our regret," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Unregistered Protestant communities have also come under police and SSS secret police pressure, including attempts to recruit informers.

#UKRAINE: Two new conscientious objector jail terms

In late March a Lviv Region court sentenced Protestant conscientious objector Serhy Stadnitsky to a 3-year jail term for refusing mobilisation on grounds of conscience. "I don't want to kill people," he told Forum 18, adding that "of course" he would be willing to perform alternative civilian service. Two days later, a Sumy Region court handed a Jehovah's Witness a similar sentence. Both are due to go to prison if their appeals fail. The one known prisoner, Dmytro Zelinsky, awaits a Supreme Court appeal on 13 June.

#KAZAKHSTAN: One district, 4 police raids, 7 fines

Police in Shu District of southern Kazakhstan raided four meetings for worship of three unregistered Protestant communities and issued six summary fines in March and April. A local court handed down another fine. The leader of one church, 77-year-old Pastor Andrei Boiprav, awaits a court hearing, despite his health condition. Church members say the situation is causing "a threat to his life and health". Forum 18 could not reach the police involved in the raids and fines. "The police are to blame," says regional religious affairs official Saule Baibatshayeva.

OCCUPIED #UKRAINE: Protestant woman on trial for Melitopol prayer meeting?

In early 2024, Russian occupation forces arrested a Protestant in her fifties for participating in a July 2023 prayer meeting in the occupied Ukrainian city of Melitopol. Prosecutors handed her criminal case to Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia Regional Court. In the same court is the criminal case against Ukrainian Orthodox Church priest Kostiantyn Maksimov for alleged "espionage". On 27 April, Krasnodon's Russian-controlled court fined Pastor Vladimir Rytikov 5,000 Russian Roubles on charges of "illegal missionary activity" for leading his unregistered Baptist congregation. "This is half my [monthly] pension," he noted.

#KAZAKHSTAN: Conscientious objector's 6 months in military detention

In autumn 2022, Jehovah's Witness Daniil Smal presented the Conscription Office a certificate from the Jehovah's Witness Centre that he is a "religious minister". This should have exempted him from conscription. He was summoned on 17 May 2023, and forcibly transferred to a military unit. He was freed only in November 2023 when Almaty Military Garrison Court ruled his conscription illegal. The Military Court rejected the military's appeal in April 2024. Smal's conscientious objection "may lead to mass negative consequences and wide public resonance", the military claimed.

#KAZAKHSTAN: Regime ignores UN alternative service recommendations

"The law does not directly recognise the right of an individual to refuse to carry out military service on religious or other grounds," Kazakhstan told the UN Human Rights Committee on 2 April in response to questions about progress on an alternative to compulsory military service. The regime did not explain why it does not recognise this right. The regime's Human Rights Commissioner Artur Lastayev did not answer Forum 18's questions. Conscription Offices often pressure young men who refuse to serve in the armed forces on grounds of conscience.

#RUSSIA: Church to be demolished as place where crime "repeatedly committed"?

On 18 June, Slavyansk City Court in Krasnodar Region will resume hearing the city administration suit for independent Orthodox Archbishop Viktor Pivovarov to demolish Holy Intercession Tikhonite Church as an "unauthorised structure". The Investigative Department informed the administration he had been charged with "discrediting" the Armed Forces for criticising Russia's war against Ukraine. It said the church was "a public place, with a large number of visitors, where a crime has been repeatedly committed against the basis of the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation".