PRAGUE, Czech Republic (Morning Star News) – In a case that could be delayed for months, government officials and rights groups are hoping Kazakhstan will honor international agreements and decline to extradite a pastor to his native Uzbekistan, where they believe he would face certain danger.
Pastor Makset Djabbarbergenov sought refuge in Kazakhstan in 2007 after being charged with holding illegal religious meetings in his house, according to Forum 18 News Service. His wife and three of his children joined him the following year. (A fourth child was born in Kazakhstan, and a fifth is expected in April.)
The 32-year-old Djabbarbergenov was arrested on Sept. 5 and ordered held until an extradition hearing is scheduled. Kazak officials told Forum 18 they were acting after the pastor was put on a “wanted” list in Uzbekistan last February for “a crime he committed in 2007.” A “wanted” poster stated that he was a follower of Isa Masih (Jesus Christ), and he fled the country that year, according to the Oslo, Norway-based news service.
The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religious Freedom last year designated Uzbekistan a “Country of Particular Concern,” one of eight countries considered the worst violators of religious freedom.
An official of the Bostandyk District Prosecutor’s Office told Forum 18 that Djabbarbergenov is wanted for violations of a law prohibiting unregistered religious meetings and for storing, importing or distributing religious literature. Both charges carry a maximum term of three years in prison.
The pastor had fled his hometown in Uzbekistan, Symbai, for the capital, Tashkent, in 2007 after authorities raided his home and detained him for holding illegal religious meetings, Forum 18 reported. He was also fined in 2001 for holding religious services, and at that time also his house was raided and Christian books were confiscated.
In Almaty, the Kazakhstan office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) acknowledged his refugee status in 2008, according to Forum 18. It said that he “is a person of concern to UNHCR and should, in particular, be protected from forcible return to a country where he would face threats to his life or freedom.”
Djabbarbergenov’s sister-in-law was detained by Kazak police in August and held for two weeks in order to obtain information concerning the pastor’s whereabouts, according to Forum 18. Eventually police found the phone number of his wife on his sister-in-law’s cell phone. Police seized her and then went to the family home and arrested Djabbarbergenov. They eventually released his sister-in-law, Forum 18 reported.
The pastor has experienced continuing legal difficulties in Kazakhstan. In 2011 the Almaty City Migration Police rejected his appeal for refugee status, stating that he did not meet eligibility criteria, according to Forum 18. Several appeals of that order have also been rejected.
One court decision said that he had “not presented sufficient evidence of his claims that he would be persecuted for his faith” were he to return to Uzbekistan, Forum 18 reported. Previously, in 2008, secret police seized him on the street near his home in an attempt to expel him, and Uzbek authorities claimed to Kazakh authorities that he was an Islamic fundamentalist and a terrorist, according to the news service.
Kazakhstan has a history of deporting refugees to Uzbekistan, which is ranked seventh on Christian support organization Open Doors’ World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. In 2011 Kazakhstan sent back 28 men Uzbek authorities wanted on anti-state and religion-related charges, according to Forum 18. Human rights organizations protested that action. Relatives of the men said they were peaceful Muslims whom authorities were seeking to punish for their religious activity, the news service reported.
Representatives of the men reportedly complained to the U.N. Committee Against Torture, arguing that they were at risk of torture if they were returned to Uzbekistan.
On June 1, the U.N. committee ruled that Kazakhstan had violated its commitments under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, according to Forum 18. It found that “the pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights and the significant risk of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in Uzbekistan, in particular for individuals practicing their faith outside of the official framework, has been sufficiently established.”
It pointed out that at least some of the complainants had already been subjected to “detention and torture” before they fled to Kazakhstan.
The committee noted that the men were detained as soon as they arrived back in Uzbekistan, and that some had received prison terms of more than 10 years, according to Forum 18.
Kazakhstan, according to the news service, had told the committee that the government had received “written guarantees from the General Prosecutor’s Office of Uzbekistan that the complainants’ rights and freedoms would be respected after the extradition and that they would not be subjected to torture or ill-treatment.”
The committee noted, however, that Kazakhstan’s acceptance of such assurances without close monitoring of conditions in Uzbek detention was inadequate, Forum 18 reported. The Committee Against Torture said the men should be brought back to Kazakhstan and given compensation. It asked Kazakh authorities to respond to the findings “within 90 days,” the agency reported.
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