By Felix Corley*
In 127 known administrative prosecutions in 2021, 111 individuals (one twice), two charities, two schools and one company were punished for worship meetings, offering religious literature and items (including online), sharing or teaching faith, posting religious material online, or praying in mosques. Beimbet Manetov of the regime’s Religious Affairs Committee insisted that individuals had to be fined if they break the law. Asked why courts punish individuals for exercising freedom of religion or belief, he responded: “I can’t comment on court decisions.” He said amendments his Committee has prepared to reduce these administrative punishments are now with the Justice Ministry, but refused to say why these punishments should not be abolished.
Kazakhstan’s authorities are known to have brought at least 127 administrative prosecutions in 2021 to punish 121 individuals (one twice), two charities, two schools and one company for their exercise of freedom of religion or belief. Of these, 117 ended with convictions, with 111 individuals (one twice), two charities, two schools and one company being punished. Almost all of the punishments included fines. However, the true number of such administrative cases is likely to be higher.
Administrative prosecutions have continued in 2022, with one known case already leading to a fine in January (see below).
The 127 known administrative cases in 2021 are a slight reduction from 2020 in the number of prosecutions. This may be because of the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent halting of public events (including meetings for worship) for much of 2021. This gave the regime fewer opportunities in 2021 for raids and prosecutions of people for exercising their freedom of religion and belief.
Beimbet Manetov, head of the Department of Law Enforcement Practice in the Field of Religious Activities at the regime’s Religious Affairs Committee insisted to Forum 18 that individuals had to be fined if they break the law. Asked why courts punish individuals for exercising freedom of religion or belief, he responded: “I can’t comment on court decisions.”
However, Manetov claimed that there had been a “significant fall” in the number such administrative cases compared to earlier years. “We concentrate more on warnings and explaining the law.” He disputed Forum 18’s figure of 127 administrative cases brought in 2021 to punish the exercise of freedom of religion or belief, but has failed to respond to a request to send full statistics (see below).
Manetov added that his Committee has completed draft amendments to Administrative Code Article 490 (which punishes violations of the Religion Law) which are now with the Justice Ministry. These would introduce a warning for a first “offence”, with fines only for further “offences”. They would also halve the level of the fines. Asked why Article 490 was not being completely abolished, he declined to say. “These are very good amendments and a liberalisation which all support,” he claimed (see below).
Punishments in 2021 included temporary bans on unspecified activity, verbal reprimands, and fines for among other things selling Bibles, Korans, and icons online, as well as teaching children to read the Koran without state permission, saying the word Amen in mosques, and posting the sermons of clerics of the state-controlled Muslim Board online. There was also one court order to destroy print-outs of religious texts (see full list below).
Muslims, Council of Churches Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Hare Krishna devotee, and commercial and private sellers were many of the targets of these prosecutions.
Fines were mostly the equivalent of between three weeks’ and four months’ average wages for those in formal work (35 to 200 Monthly Financial Indicators, MFIs, 102,095 Tenge to 583,400 Tenge in the 2021 calendar year).
Many of the prosecutions were to punish meetings for worship without state permission. In October 2021, a court in the western city of Aktau fined three Muslims who had prayed the namaz with others at their place of work on 10 August 2021, the festival of al-Hijra, the Islamic New Year.
Council of Churches Baptists – who refuse to seek state permission to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief – were similarly fined for holding worship meetings. Baptist Nikolai Novikov, whose church’s Christmas service on 8 January 2021 was raided by police, leading to two fines, told Forum 18 on 2 February 2022 that “it has been quieter in recent months”, with almost no raids.
Police Departments for the Struggle with Extremism hunt “offenders”
Police Departments for the Struggle with Extremism are recorded in five 2021 court decisions as discovering that individuals have committed an “offence”, though they may have been involved in more without this being noted in court decisions.
They identified three individuals offering to sell icons or books online, one individual offering religious materials for sale in a shop, and one individual maintaining a prayer room without state permission.
“Illegal” online sales
At least 17 individuals and 1 company are known to have been prosecuted in 2021 for offering religious books or materials for sale online. This represents a fall in the number of such cases in the previous three years: (29 in 2020, 24 in 2019, 18 in 2018, 10 in 2017).
Most were punished for offering such materials for sale on the online shopping site Olx.kz.
Among the items Olx.kz lists on the help section of its website as being illegal to sell are “Religious literature, other informational materials of religious content and items of religious significance”. The website appears to have added this information in late 2020, after a number of prosecutions that year.
The 13 December 2021 court decision in the case of Marina Gubina, who was offering one religious book for sale on Olx.kz, notes: “It was established during the court hearing that Gubina distributed religious literature through the Olx social network, that is via a place not associated with a special stationary premises for distribution of religious literature in accord with a decree of the Akimat [Administration] of Karaganda Region of 24 September 2021 No. 46/1.”
Several other 2021 court decisions include similar wording. “The placing of private announcements on Olx.kz are not among the places specially determined by local executive authorities” for the distribution of religious materials, the 12 April 2021 court decision in the case of Vladimir Savvichev notes.
Forum 18 asked Olx.kz in writing on 31 January 2019 what measures it takes to try to ensure that users of its website do not suffer from the regime’s censorship of religious literature and objects, and whether customers have complained to the company over punishments for offering religious items for sale on its platform. Forum 18 had received no response by the end of the working day in Kazakhstan on 2 February 2022.
Destroying books, “harassment” now ending?
Police and other officials often seize religious books and materials when they initiate administrative cases involving religious literature and items. Some court decisions note that the literature and items are to be returned once any fine is paid.
In May 2021 in Aktau, a court ordered four religious books seized from a commercial seller to be confiscated. The court decision did not say what would happen to the books.
In June 2021 a Temirtau court ordered that print-outs of Muslim texts from the internet and flash drives containing religious materials seized from an individual be destroyed. However, no known court decision in 2021 ordered published religious literature to be destroyed.
In three known cases in 2020, courts ordered seized religious books to be destroyed. In 2019, such court orders to destroy seized religious literature were more common. In one case in Kyzylorda, 29 Muslim books seized from a commercial seller were ordered destroyed.
In 2019, police began using Administrative Code Article 449, Part 1 (“Harassment in public places”) to punish with small summary fines individuals sharing their faith. Police issued three such fines in 2019, but courts overturned all three on appeal. In 2020, the second year of known such cases related to the exercise of freedom of religion or belief, police handed a Jehovah’s Witness a summary fine for sharing her faith. The woman chose not to appeal. There were no known cases of police use of Article 449 to punish the exercise of freedom of religion or belief in 2021.
Targeting ethnic Dungan Koran teachers
Three Muslims from the ethnic Dungan minority in Kordai District of the southern Zhambyl Region who taught the Koran and Islam to local children were among the six individuals known to have been punished in 2021 for teaching their faith without state permission.
The prosecution of the three brings to 11 the number of ethnic Dungan Muslims from Kordai District punished by Kordai District Court under Administrative Code Article 490, Part 3, for teaching children to read the Koran without state permission since August 2018.
Maksat Erezhepov, head of Kordai District Police, denied to Forum 18 in April 2021 that there was any “ethnic factor” in the prosecutions.
Fines are the most common punishment, with fines for individuals mostly being between three weeks’ and two months’ average wages. For pensioners and those without formal work, such fines can be a heavy burden. Individuals who are punished for offering religious materials for sale online often tell the courts that they are desperately short of money and are trying to sell any property they no longer need. This does not stop judges from fining them.
In addition to fines, courts often ban individuals from activity for three months. Sometimes the ban is unspecific, leaving individuals unclear about what they can and cannot do. In other cases courts ban specific activities, for example distributing religious materials (which is in any case illegal without state permission). The hardest-hitting bans are on those running shops, as a three-month ban could leave owners and employees with no income.
Those who refuse or fail to pay fines can be placed on the list of debtors who are banned from leaving the country. Council of Churches Baptists refuse to pay fines on principle, arguing that they should not be punished for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. Many have spent years on the exit ban list (see below).
In addition to the administrative cases actually brought, police and prosecutors often use the threat of such cases to intimidate individuals who have been exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief.
Prosecutions continue in 2022
Prosecutions continue in 2022, with one known case having concluded with punishment so far.
On 14 January, Aktobe Specialised Administrative Court fined Kural Abdualiyev for a sermon of less than 15 minutes he gave by invitation in a mosque in the city on 26 October 2021 without state approval. (The YouTube video of the event has since been removed.) The court fined Abdualiyev 100 Monthly Financial Indicators (MFIs), about 2 months’ average wages for those in formal work.
Known 2021 cases
Known administrative cases for exercising freedom of religion and belief in the 2021 calendar year totalled 127 (in comparison to 134 in 2020, 168 in 2019, 171 in 2018 and 284 in 2017). Those targeted in 2021 were:
– 28 (23 individuals (1 twice), 2 schools and 2 charities) for meeting for worship without state permission, hosting such meetings or maintaining places for such meetings (19 in 2020, 37 in 2019, 40 in 2018, 88 in 2017).
– 3 individuals for offering religious materials to others for free without state permission (4 in 2019, 15 in 2019, 10 in 2018, 39 in 2017).
– 17 individuals for offering religious literature, icons or other items for sale without state permission (26 in 2020, 30 in 2019, 34 in 2018, 58 in 2017).
– 18 (17 individuals and 1 company) for offering religious items for sale online without state permission (29 in 2020, 24 in 2019, 18 in 2018, 10 in 2017).
– 39 individuals for posting religious materials online without state permission (28 in 2020, 33 in 2019, 23 in 2018, 12 in 2017).
– 3 individuals for sharing faith with others without state permission (10 in 2020, 8 in 2019, 17 in 2018, 31 in 2017).
– 12 Muslims for praying in mosques in ways that the state-controlled Muslim Board has banned, for example by using the word “Amen” (9 (one twice) in 2020, 9 in 2019, 21 in 2018, 22 in 2017, the first year such punishments were imposed).
– 6 individuals for teaching their faith to children without state permission (7 in 2020, 4 in 2019, 3 in 2018, 2 in 2017).
A total of 125 of the 127 known 2021 cases were heard in court, while two fines (on Council of Churches Baptists) are known to have been summarily handed down by police (the total number could be higher). In 2020, police are known to have issued 3 such summary fines. In 2019, police are known to have issued 20 such summary fines.
Of the 122 administrative cases known to have been brought against individuals in 2021, 93 were against men and 29 against women. Women represented about half of individuals prosecuted to punish offering religious literature and other items for sale in shops and online.
Two 2021 administrative cases began as criminal cases
Of the 122 known administrative prosecutions against individuals in 2021, at least two began as cases under the Criminal Code. The Criminal Case Article in both cases is not specified in the administrative case court decision.
In earlier years, such initial investigations have mainly been under Criminal Code Article 174 (“Incitement of social, national, clan, racial, or religious discord, insult to the national honour and dignity or religious feelings of citizens, as well as propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of citizens on grounds of their religion, class, national, generic or racial identity, committed publicly or with the use of mass media or information and communication networks, as well as by production or distribution of literature or other information media, promoting social, national, clan, racial, or religious discord”). Kazakh human rights defenders and the UN Human Rights Committee have repeatedly called for this Article to be reworded or abolished.
The regime has particularly used Criminal Code Article 174 cases to jail prisoners of conscience for exercising their freedom of religion and belief.
The administrative cases in these two 2021 cases were launched when prosecutors decided not to pursue criminal cases.
No individuals are known to have been prosecuted in 2021 for trying to import religious literature without state permission (1 in 2020, 4 in 2019, 0 in 2018, 4 in 2017).
No individuals are known to have been prosecuted in 2021 for allowing children to be present or conducting religious rites against the wishes of one parent (0 in 2020, 1 in 2019, 1 in 2018, 9 in 2017).
No religious communities are known to have been prosecuted in 2021 for “inadequate” security or security measures for their places of worship, for example not having enough video cameras (0 in 2020, 2 in 2019, 2 in 2018, 5 in 2017).
No individuals are known to have been prosecuted in 2021 for failing to pay earlier fines to punish them for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief without state permission (0 in 2020, 0 in 2019, 2 in 2018, 2 in 2017).
No foreign citizens are known to have been ordered deported in 2021 (0 in 2020, 0 in 2019, 1 in 2018, 2 in 2017).
Exit bans for earlier fines
When individuals fail or refuse to pay fines, their cases are handed to court bailiffs to recover the money. They can order funds to be deducted from wages, seize property in lieu, and ban individuals from leaving the country until a fine is paid. Those who refuse to pay repeated fines can remain on the exit ban list for many years.
Council of Churches Baptists refuse to seek state permission to exercise freedom of religion or belief (as is their right under international human rights commitments). They also refuse to pay fines handed down to punish them for exercising freedom of religion or belief.
Several Council of Churches Baptists who have refused to pay earlier fines for exercising freedom of religion or belief remain on the Justice Ministry list of those banned from leaving the country. Among those on the Justice Ministry list as of 2 February 2022 are:
– Aleksandr Yalfimov from West Kazakhstan Region, banned since 14 November 2013;
– Sergei Krasnov from Oral, banned since 5 July 2017;
– Viktor Nelepin from Oral, banned since 5 July 2017 (plus 2 bans from 24 October 2018);
– Dmitry Isayev from Oral, banned since 24 October 2018;
– Nikolai Novikov from Oral, banned (most recently) since 30 July 2019;
– Eduard Neifeld from Almaty, banned since 23 August 2019;
– Denis Yenenko from North Kazakhstan Region, banned since 20 January 2020.
“I have been continuously banned from leaving Kazakhstan since October 2013,” Council of Churches Baptist Nikolai Novikov told Forum 18 from Oral on 1 February 2022. “Of course I want to be able to travel abroad – I haven’t been able to visit relatives in Russia. I’ve received many invitations but haven’t been able to go to a single wedding.”
Novikov has been repeatedly fined over many years for exercising freedom of religion or belief. However, his current exit ban relates to only one of the fines, handed down in April 2019, as the money for at least two other fines was ordered deducted from his wages. The court executor charged with recovering the unpaid fine is the court bailiff in Oral, Kairat Sarsekeyev.
“I went to Sarsekeyev and explained why we don’t pay fines because we don’t consider them right,” Novikov told Forum 18. “He responded that it’s all the same to him. ‘You’re guilty and you must pay,’ he told me.” Novikov added that bailiffs keep for themselves a percentage of the money they recover, possibly 20 per cent. “The more they force people to pay, the more they get personally.”
Sarsekeyev did not answer his phone each time Forum 18 called on 2 February.
“I can’t comment on court decisions”
Beimbet Manetov, head of the Department of Law Enforcement Practice in the Field of Religious Activities at the regime’s Religious Affairs Committee (part of the Information and Social Development Ministry) insisted to Forum 18 on 1 February that individuals had to be fined if they break the law. Asked why courts punish individuals for exercising freedom of religion or belief, he responded: “I can’t comment on court decisions.”
However, Manetov claimed that there had been a “significant fall” in the number of such administrative cases compared to earlier years. “We concentrate more on warnings and explaining the law.”
Manetov disputed Forum 18’s figure of 127 administrative cases brought in 2021 to punish the exercise of freedom of religion or belief. However, he said he did not have the full figures to hand but offered to provide them. Forum 18 asked him for these figures in writing in the afternoon of 1 February. It had received no response by the end of the working day in Nur-Sultan of 2 February.
Punishments to be reduced, but not abolished?
Beimbet Manetov, head of the Department of Law Enforcement Practice in the Field of Religious Activities, told Forum 18 that the Religious Affairs Committee has completed long-promised draft amendments to Administrative Code Article 490 (which punishes “Violating the Religion Law”). If adopted in current form, these would introduce a warning for a first “offence”, with fines only for further “offences”. They would also halve the level of the fines.
The Information and Social Development Ministry appears to have prepared these amendments in early 2021. Forum 18 has seen an initial text from July 2021.
Manetov claimed that the draft text has been published on the government website for draft laws to allow public scrutiny. Forum 18 could find no publicly available draft text.
The Religious Affairs Committee has sent the amendments to the Justice Ministry, Manetov added. The Justice Ministry is seeking approval for them from other government entities (presumably including the Interior Ministry and the National Security Committee secret police). They will then be sent for approval by the Prime Minister before being sent to Parliament. Manetov gave no timescale for their adoption.
Asked why Article 490 was not being completely abolished, Manetov declined to say. “These are very good amendments and a liberalisation which all support,” he claimed.