JULY 6, 2017
On June 29, 2017, a court in Almaty, Kazakhstan, fined the Christian Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan (Center) and suspended all of its activity for three months. The court’s decision is based on an inspection alleging that the Center needed 3 more security cameras in addition to the 25 already installed in order to comply with legislation concerning public venues. However, on February 6, 2017, State officials had already approved an official plan for the Center’s property, showing the location of all installed security cameras. By approving that official plan, the State officials confirmed that the Center was in full compliance with the relevant legislation.
Polat Bekzhan, chairman of the Center, stated: “The decision to suspend all of the Center’s activities is a grossly disproportionate penalty for the alleged violation. We are appealing the decision, which seems to have been motivated by religious intolerance.”
Official Interference With the Center’s Activities
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan are facing escalating harassment by law-enforcement officials. Prior to the June 29 decision from Judge N. M. Pakirdinov of the Specialized Interdistrict Administrative Court, authorities raided the Center on May 17 on the pretext of conducting a security inspection. The raid was conducted in broad daylight and was directed by the State National Security Services (formerly known as the KGB) and more than 30 officers, including masked SWAT police armed with machine guns. They claimed that they were carrying out an order to inspect public venues to ensure their safety prior to Expo 2017, which began in the capital city of Astana in June 2017.
On June 23-25, 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses hosted a three-day special convention, which was attended by delegates from the United States, Europe, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and other countries. Prior to the convention, however, authorities had interfered with contracts for convention venues, and the contracts were canceled. As a result, the 1,500 delegates gathered with local Witnesses on the Center’s property for this religious event.
On the first day of the convention, on the pretext of checking documents of bus drivers, police detained 11 buses with as many as 500 foreign delegates for two hours at their hotels. On the second day, again on the pretext of checking the drivers’ documents, police detained 20 buses with 900 delegates at their hotels for up to three hours.
The Center filed a complaint with the Almaty Prosecutor’s Office. Although the prosecutor’s office did not respond, police did not harass the Witnesses on the third day of the convention. However, just four days after the convention concluded, the administrative court in Almaty issued its decision to suspend the Center’s activities.
Framing Trouble Through the Law
Since December 2012, the Kazakhstan government has increasingly restricted the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country. The government has imposed heavy fines on more than 60 of Jehovah’s Witnesses for unregistered “missionary activity.”
In January 2017, Kazakhstan authorities initiated two criminal cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses for sharing their religious beliefs. In May, Teymur Akhmedov was convicted for his religious activity and is now serving a five-year prison sentence. In another case, police are investigating a Witness on the charge of inciting religious hatred because he offered a religious publication that Russian authorities had banned as “extremist” literature.
Will Kazakhstan Mimic Russia’s Treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
The Witnesses have met on numerous occasions with the Committee of Religious Affairs to discuss their right to worship freely but have had little success. However, at the initiative of the General Prosecutor’s Office (GPO), the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan took up the case of Andrey Korolyov, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who was convicted for publicly sharing his religious beliefs. In its decision of June 1, 2017, the Court acquitted Mr. Korolyov, recognizing that the right to freedom of religion protects the peaceful public manifestation of beliefs. Though the GPO has assured the Witnesses that it will circulate the favorable ruling, so far the lower courts have refused to apply that decision and have again convicted Jehovah’s Witnesses of so-called “unregistered missionary activity.”
Gregory Allen, Assistant General Counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated: “It is very unfortunate to see Kazakhstan imitating Russia by using baseless charges to interfere with the internationally recognized right to religious freedom. We fear that the June 29 decision suspending the Center’s activity is much more than what it appears, and we look for justice in our appeal against this interference.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide are concerned that these recent developments indicate that the authorities are progressing toward banning their fellow believers in Kazakhstan, similar to the efforts against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.