By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
TASHKENT /BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)-- Authorities in Uzbekistan are increasingly confiscating privately owned Bibles and other Christian literature, saying such books "are forbidden to keep at home," while handing out huge fines to “violators”, local Christians and rights activists said.
In comments monitored by BosNewsLife on Friday, August 10, advocacy group Forum 18 cited a Baptist Christian, Roman Nizamutdinov, as being among believers who were fined up to 40 times the country's minimum monthly salary, for "illegally storing religious books in his private home."
He will have to pay some 1,300 dollars at the inflated official exchange rate, some 2.5 million Uzbekistani Soms, a huge amount in the impoverished former Soviet republic, Forum 18 News Service said about last month's ruling.
Judge Oltynbek Mansurov of Navoi Criminal Court in southwestern Uzbekistan reportedly said the Baptist had books from the Jehova's Witnesses sect, though Christians claimed they were Protestant books including ' Evidence That Demands a Verdict' by American author Josh McDowell.
Separately, the judge reportedly told local media that Nizamutdinov "is engaged in anti-constitutional activity, and is a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, which was confirmed by the literature confiscated from him".
In published remarks, Nizamutdinov said he would appeal the fine on grounds that include an April raid on his house by three men in police uniforms who allegedly refused to identify themselves and did not provide a search warrant.
Yet, another Christian, Sharofat Allamova, already lost an appeal against a fine of 10 times the minimum monthly wage, some $325 in local currency, for possessing Christian books and DVD disks, saying there were some "272 violations" of the law, Forum 18 said.
Judge Jahongir Botyrov of Khorasm Regional Criminal Court, who upheld the fine and confiscations, reportedly said he had "no time or desire" to talk but that she should “complain through her lawyer".
Allamova was already given a suspended jail sentence in 2007 for possessing religious literature, trial observers said.
Among other known incidents in early August, police raided a Christian home in eastern Fergana Region, “as in other cases without a search warrant or other legal justification,” Forum 18 claimed.
Local Protestants, speaking on condition of anonymity, say Fergana Police confiscated one Bible in Uzbek, one Bible in Russian, and a book by Christian author John Bunyan, who was twice imprisoned for his faith in late 17th century England.
Police were heard saying, "Don't you know that it is prohibited to keep such books at home", adding that books would be sent for "expert analysis" by the Religious Affairs Committee, and that their owner would.
Christians say fines are imposed “on those with no realistic ability to pay them.” They cited the case of another local Protestant, in Kokand city of Fergana Region, who was reportedly visited by bailiffs in recent days demanding that a fine of 20 times the monthly minimum salary be paid.
Authorities imposed the fine after the Christian's home was reportedly raided in February by security forces who also confiscated Christian literature. "They cannot afford to pay such a fine, as they are poor", Protestants reportedly commented.
Among others are Christians Eduard Kim and Iosif Skayev, who were each fined $160 in local currency last month and Tereza Rusanova, a 25-year-old Baptist, who was nearly $1,000, or 30 times the minimum monthly salary, for not having a required exit visa for visiting Turkey.” However, “It is thought that [Ruanova] may have been fined because she is known to be a Christian,” Forum 18 explained.
Officials often use controversial legislation that prohibits the "illegal production, storage, or import into Uzbekistan with a purpose to distribute or distribution of religious materials by physical persons."
Punishments are a fine of between 50 and 150 times the minimum monthly wage, "with confiscation of the religious materials and the relevant means of their production and distribution", according to experts familiar with the legislation.
Critics say president Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan for over two decades, takes a ruthlessly authoritarian approach to all forms of opposition or other groups deemed dangerous to his leadership, including Christian groups.
He has also been accused of using the threat of Islamic militancy to justify his style of leadership.
Western observers who monitored the 2004 parliamentary elections condemned them as having failed to meet international standards and said all candidates supported the president. Karimov and the Uzbek government have denied accusations of human rights abuses.
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