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Article Kazakhstan: New Sentences for Exercise of Religious Beliefs

(Sept. 19, 2013) Kazakhstan was criticized recently by international human rights organizations for restricting specific religious groups and practices. ( Religious Freedom in Kazakhstan, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs website (last visited Sept. 17, 2013).) Kazakhstan is a secular Central Asian state whose Constitution guarantees all citizens freedom of religion. (Constitution of Kazakhstan, art. 22, President of Kazakhstan official website (last visited Sept. 17, 2013).) However, Kazakhstan still maintains legal and government restrictions on religious organizations and practice.  (Religious Freedom in Kazakhstan, supra.)

In May 2013, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a statement saying that Kazakh authorities have a tendency to distinguish between traditional and non-traditional religions. (OSCE Permanent Council Nr 950, EU Statement on Freedom of Religion or Belief in Kazakhstan (May 2, 2013).) The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) detailed in its annual report a decline in religious freedom protections in Kazakhstan over the past five years and placed Kazakhstan on its list of countries where religious freedom restrictions can become of particular concern. (Press Release, USCIRF Urges the Kazakh Government to Release Two Activists (July 25, 2013).)

These statements coincided with recently issued Kazakh court rulings against religious activists. As reported by the Forum 18 News Service, a member of a Jehovah’s Witnesses group was fined for illegal missionary activity after inviting friends, via text message, to attend a religious meeting. Similarly, members of another Jehovah’s Witnesses group were fined after police raided their meeting and found that several attendees were guests. (Mushfig Bayram, Kazakhstan: Inviting to Religious Worship a New Offence, Forum 18 News Service (Sept. 3, 2013).) Thirteen people were fined in an amount equivalent to approximately US$1,130 each, which is more than nine months of the official minimum monthly wage in Kazakhstan. (Id.)

Members of the church contend that they “were penalized for talking to people about God and the Bible, and sharing their personal religious beliefs.” (Id.) The government accusations, however, were based on provisions of the Kazakh Code of Administrative Violations, which prohibits “leading, participating in, or financing an unregistered, halted, or banned religious community or social organization” as well as “conducting missionary activity without registration.” (Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Administrative Violations, Law No. 155 of Jan. 15, 2001 [in Russian], arts. 374-1 & 375, ONLINE.ZAKON.KZ.)

The Forum 18 report also mentioned criminal charges brought against an atheist writer and anti-corruption campaigner, Aleksandr Kharlamov, who, according to the report, was detained and awaits trial for articles he has written criticizing religion. (Id.) The prosecution considered these writings as constituting “inciting religious hatred” and charged Kharlamov with violation of article 164, part 1, of the Kazakh Criminal Code. (Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Law No. 167 of July 16, 1997 [in Russian], ONLINE.ZAKON.KZ.)

After Kharlamov’s arrest, he was subjected to repeated psychiatric examinations in mental health facilities due to signs of “delusional disorder,” according to the Kharlamov case investigating officer. (Kazis Toguzbaev, Human Rights Activist Kharlamov Examined by Psychiatrists [in Russian], ABIYEV.KZ (Apr. 15, 2013).) However, Kharlamov, who was previously engaged in human rights activities, might have become a victim of politically motivated charges because of his articles on corruption among local officials. (Id.)

Prepared by Svitlana Vodyanyk, Law Library Intern, under the supervision of Peter Roudik, Director of Legal Research.

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