TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (BP)–A court in Uzbekistan has overturned massive fines levied against three Baptist Union leaders in late October but upheld their criminal convictions, which Uzbek Baptists claim were based on fabricated evidence. An order barring the three from holding responsible positions in the Baptist Union for three years also remains in place.
Baptist Union President Pavel Peichev, union accountant Yelena Kurbatova and Baptist layman Dmitri Pitirimov were relieved the fines — which equaled 260 times the monthly minimum wage — were overturned but told the Forum 18 news service they planned to appeal the Dec. 4 ruling in Tashkent criminal court.
“We will probably lodge a further appeal to the Supreme Court,” Peichev told Forum 18. “The conviction was unjust and we want it overturned.”
The charges of evading taxes and involving children in religious activity without their or their parents’ consent were based on assemblies held at the union’s Joy Baptist Children’s Camp, which was directed by Pitirimov.
The three were convicted even though some of the parents involved denied their children were forced to listen to religious teaching. Parents testified they had filed no complaints about the camp and that no one harmed their children materially, physically or morally. They also told the court that no religious rituals were performed with their children during the camp, no Baptist had suggested their children change religion while at the camp and no one had suggested children attend Baptist churches after the camp. One parent said she had written her statement as it was dictated to her by officials from the prosecutor’s office and that she had signed the record of her interrogation even though it was written in Russian, which she does not speak.
The removal from their positions and the fact the criminal charges were upheld will seriously harm Baptist work in Uzbekistan, the three told Forum 18.
“Although we won’t now have to pay the massive fines, we still have a criminal record,” Pitirimov said. “Pavel can’t be leader of the Baptist Union anymore — that’s clear. Court executors will enforce this. Yelena won’t be able to have anything to do with finances, but accounting is her only profession. This is serious for the Baptist Union and serious for them.”
Uzbekistan law now calls for police to ensure the Baptist Union removes Peichev and Kurbatova from office, Forum 18 reported. The three also will be required to give police the names and addresses of their relatives and promise not to leave the city without prior police permission. They will be subject to periodic “check-ups” by local police as well.
The verdict illustrates a broad climate of government persecution against religious freedom in Uzbekistan that affects not only evangelical Christians but also Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is and even Muslims. Forum 18 reported the country’s Justice Ministry held a seminar Aug. 4 that compared the activity of religious groups to human trafficking and religious extremism. Sharing one’s religious beliefs with others is a crime in Uzbekistan.
Newspapers and websites publish alarmist articles against missionary activity and authorities have been rebroadcasting TV films encouraging intolerance and attacking religious minorities as well as freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 said. In October, an article in the “Chirchik” newspaper alleged — without giving concrete examples — that Jehovah’s Witnesses converts are stripped of homes and money. An Uzbek state television special first shown in November 2006 claims Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses turn people into zombies and drive them to psychiatric hospitals.
In June 2008, Abe David Gurevich, the Russian-born head of the country’s Jewish community who had worked in Uzbekistan since 1990, was forced to leave Uzbekistan after the Justice Ministry refused to renew work visas for Gurevich and his wife Malka. Usbekistan’s prisons also house prisoners of conscience such as Dmitry Shestakov, a Pentecostal pastor who is serving a four-year sentence, and three Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly.