Entries in Uzbekistan (2)


UZBEKISTAN: Large fine follows police bullying of children

Pastor Sergei Rychagov of Grace Presbyterian Church near Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent was heavily fined for violating the Religion Law, missionary activity, "illegal" religious teaching and violating the procedure for holding religious meetings. However, he learned of the fine only in June, Protestants told Forum 18 News Service. Police bullied children from a local orphanage who had been attending the church into writing statements against him, they added. The officer who brought the case insisted to Forum 18 that Rychagov had violated the law, while the judge who fined him refused to explain why he had done so. In Urgench, Anti-Terrorism Police accused a local Baptist of "teaching religion illegally". Police have already seized religious literature and the man's car. Asked by Forum 18 why other Baptists are being questioned to incriminate him, Anti-Terrorism Police Major Shavkat Bekchanov responded: "Who are you and why should I discuss the case with you over the phone?"

Police brought administrative charges against a Protestant pastor near Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent after forcing children from a local orphanage to write statements officers could use to bring the case, local Protestants complained to Forum 18 News Service. Although a court handed down a large fine in February, the pastor found out about it only in June.

Police bullying of children

Police bullied young people into writing statements against Pastor Sergei Rychagov of Grace Presbyterian Church, in the town of Dostabod in Tashkent Region's Kuyichirchik District. The five young people, all orphans between the ages of 15 and 18, live in Special Children's Boarding School No. 46, local Protestants who wish to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 on 4 August.

Then Headteacher Shakir Khalikulov gave permission in 2012 for the young people to start going on Saturdays to a private home next to the Church building, where they took baths, were fed, and also worked in the grounds of the Church. On Sundays they participated in the Church's meetings for worship. However, in late 2014 police pressured them into writing statements describing what went on at the church premises.

On the basis of these statements Captain Mirjasur Anvarov of Kuychirchik Police Station opened an administrative case against Pastor Rychagov.

Pastor Rychagov's Church was in 2012 raided and subjected to state-sponsored media attack, as well as he himself being fined (see F18News 18 September 2012 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1744).


Police Captain Anvarov brought charges against Pastor Rychagov under four parts of the Code of Administrative Offences:

- Article 201, Part 2 ("Violation of the procedure for holding religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies");

- Article 240 (Violation of the Religion Law), Part 1 ("Carrying out of unauthorised religious activity, evasion by leaders of religious organisations of registration of the charter of the organisation, the unauthorised organisation and conduct of worship by religious ministers, and the organisation and conduct of special children's and youth meetings, as well as vocational, literature and other study groups not relating to worship"); 

- Article 240, Part 2 ("Attracting believers of one confession to another (proselytism) and other missionary activity");

- and Article 241, Part 1 ("Teaching religious beliefs without specialised religious education and without permission from the central organ of a [registered] religious organisation, as well as teaching religious beliefs privately").

Rychagov "violated the Religion Law", Captain Anvarov insisted to Forum 18 on 5 August. Asked why he opened a case against the Pastor for helping orphans, Anvarov responded: "I can't tell you about the case over the phone, you need to come to our office." When Forum 18 asked why Pastor Rychagov was charged under Article 241, even though he has religious education and is a Pastor of a state-registered Church, Anvarov put the phone down.

Massive fine in February, Pastor told of hearing and fine in June

Judge Khakim Malikov of Tashkent Region's Kuyichirchik District Criminal Court heard the case against Rychagov on 27 February – even though the Pastor had not been told of the hearing and so was not present and could not arrange to be defended. The Judge fined him 9,472,000 Soms (about 30,360 Norwegian Kroner, 3,380 Euros, or 3,675 US Dollars at the inflated official exchange rate).

Rychagov found out about the hearing and fine only on 22 June, local Protestants who know him, and who asked not to be named for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18.

Local Protestants told Forum 18 that the hearing and punishment of Pastor Rychagov were illegal. For example:

- none of the young people's statements were dated;

- the case was registered on 24 December 2014 but the hearing took place on 27 February 2015 – exceeding Administrative Code Article 36's two-month limit for bringing cases to court;

- there is no evidence in the case materials that Rychagov was notified in advance of the court hearing;

- and contrary to the charges under Article 241, Rychagov has a religious education, and his Church is officially registered with Tashkent Region's Justice Department.

Asked by Forum 18 on 5 August why he fined Pastor Rychagov in his absence and with violations of legal procedure, Judge Malikov refused to answer. He claimed instead that Rychagov "ran away and is being searched for". When Forum 18 repeated the earlier question and asked why Article 241 was used when it does not apply to an authorised person of a state-registered religious organisation, he replied "no comments over the phone" before refusing to discuss the case further.

Police still hunting woman, harassing and charging family

Police in Karshi in the south-eastern Kashkadarya Region are still hunting Guljahon Kuzebayeva, a local Protestant, local Protestants who asked not to be named for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 on 31 July.

Kuzebayeva has been in hiding from police since July 2014, as they allege she talked to family members about her Christian faith. She fears torture during interrogation and possible short-term jailing, fellow Protestants have told Forum 18 (see F18News 14 April 2015 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2055).

The use of informal physical violence and torture against women and men, or threats of this, by the authorities is widespread in Uzbekistan (see Forum 18's Uzbekistan religious freedom survey http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1862).

Between 7 and 23 May police harassed and raided Kuzebayeva's relatives and neighbour in repeated attempts to find her. They behaved insultingly, "like hooligans", local Protestants complained (see F18News 4 June 2015 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2070). In early July the raids and harassment continued (see F18News 24 July 2015 http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1980).

At lunchtime on 24 July, Ilhom Yakhshiyev, Fakhridddin Jurayev and Dilmurod Boboyev of Karshi Police came to Kuzebayeva's home. They told her family that her daughter-in-law Dilnora Boboyeva (no relation of Dilmurod Boboyev) allegedly claimed in May 2015 that Kuzebayeva abducted Boboyeva's son for three days. Local Protestants told Forum 18 that Boboyeva had voluntarily left the boy at Kuzebayeva's home. Police refused to provide the family with any documentation of their claims.

Police officer Yakhshiyev refused to tell Forum 18 on 5 August why police are harassing Kuzebayeva and her family. He then put the phone down.

Shahnoza Berdiyeva, Kuzebayeva's niece, was fined in mid-July "for not obeying police orders", officer Nodyr told Forum 18 on 5 August. Asked what charges were brought and where, he claimed that "I don't remember". Asked why police are harassing Kuzebayeva's family and what exactly she is accused of, officer Nodyr asked Forum 18 to call back in 20 minutes. He refused to answer and put the phone down when Forum 18 called back.

Home raided, car confiscated

Police in Urgench in the north-western Khorezm Region on 20 July raided the home of Stanislav Kim, a member of a local Council of Churches Baptist Church, as two other local Baptists – Mirzabek Kuranbayev and Dmitry Krasnokutsky – were with him, local Protestants told Forum 18 on 5 August.

"Police checked passports, and then claimed that a woman wrote a complaint that Kim gave two Christian books to her brother as a present," the Protestants told Forum 18. Kim had given the man the books at his request, they added. Police then searched Kim's home and car, and confiscated Kim's passport, several books and a notebook from the car, as well as the car itself. Kim's passport has been returned, but not his car.

The officials then brought all three Baptists to Urgench Police Station, and put Pastor Kim's car in the Police Station's pound for confiscated cars.

Detained, interrogated, pressured

The three Baptists were kept at the Police Station for questioning until 1 am the following morning, 21 July. After being released, Pastor Kim and Kuranbayev were that morning again summoned to the Police Station, where they were held for questioning all day. The 15-year-old Krasnokutsky was brought to the Police Station that evening.

Major Shukhrat Masharipov and Shavkat Bekchanov of Urgench Anti-Terrorism Police demanded that Kuranbayev and Krasnokutsky state that Pastor Kim is "teaching religion illegally", local Protestants complained. Kuranbayev was questioned in Uzbek, a language he does not understand, then at 10 pm sent to a detention centre for minors. He was released the next day, 22 July.

Local Protestants fear that charges will be brought against Pastor Kim under Administrative Code Article 241, Part 1 ("Teaching religious beliefs without specialised religious education and without permission from the central organ of a [registered] religious organisation, as well as teaching religious beliefs privately").

No-one from Urgench Police was willing to discuss the case with Forum 18 on 5 August. Questioned by Forum 18 about the pressure exerted on two Baptists, including a minor, to incriminate Pastor Kim, Anti-Terrorism Police Major Bekchanov responded: "Who are you and why should I discuss the case with you over the phone?" 



Vlad Sekan: Nothing is taboo for the NSC, Uzbekistan

Vlad Sekan is a well-known figure in Protestant circles. The head of Shelter, a rehabilitation center and the manager of social services for the Full Gospel Christian Center in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, he is also the presbyter of the church and the father of 9 children with a 10th on the way. He is an active user of social networks. His writing is interesting, and what he writes about is also interesting. Because Vlad writes about life. About how to change it. How to seize the opportunity to become a different person. The kind of person he transformed into one fine day. 

The kind of person that God made of him on one fine day. 

And I think it’s safe to say that the process is not complete. After all, just try not to become someone else after you have to leave forever for another country, while for two months your beloved wife and children are left behind. You leave to escape from the Uzbek National Security Council (NSC), which had found a way to shut down Vlad and his work – so bothersome to them – rescuing alcoholics and drug addicts. 

I.Ch.: How is Vlad Sekan, a man with whom God continues to work?

V.S (smiling):  Getting used to a new life. And it feels good. God took care of my family, everyone is already close by, in Ukraine. We have a house and even a car that a brother from the  church gave me to use.

I.Ch.:  Vlad, you've been working in administering rehabilitation services in Uzbekistan for a long time, haven't you?

V.S.:  Yes, since 2002

I.Ch.:  So what went wrong? How did you, a person involved in social welfar activities, displease the NSC?

V.S.:  In general it's easy to displease the NSC. You've probably heard about how this agency put the daughter of the president of Uzbekistan under house arrest. They incarcerated her husband and financial director, and sentenced them each to 10 years. Their property was confiscated. Nothing is taboo for the NSC. Everyone is afraid of them because they do whatever they want. Gulnara, the daughter of the president, at one time helped us, but in recent years the situation has changed for the worse. Including for Christians.

I.Ch.:  What was it like in the beginning, when you were just starting your ministry? Let us know, if you would.

V.S.:  I began my ministry while I was still in prison, in the late 1990s. This was not my first time behind bars, but all of a sudden I wanted more of life, I wanted this to be the last time. And at that moment I repented, completely forgetting that I was a drug addict. All my dependency – all this was left in the past. I became, as they say, a new person.

Christians would come to the colony to minister to the prisoners, among them – me. In time, I began to minister alongside my brothers. And when I was released in 2000, I founded the Center for the Re-Socialization of Drug Addicts. In fact, it was only much later that it came to be called that. In the beginning, we met in an abandoned dormitory. By "we", I mean the ministers, the drug addicts, the alcoholics, and people who were released from prison and had nowhere to go. We didn't know how this was supposed to work, we had no experience, but we didn't let this stop us. We came to have our own building only in 2002. And then, in addition to the building, we opened a workshop for metalworking. After all, people couldn't live permanently at the Center. They had to adapt to life, get back on their feet, start families.

I.Ch.:  How many people passed through your Center?

V.S. (thoughtfully):  Approximately 3,000-5,000 over 10 years. Maybe more. It's hard to say for sure. We began, as I recall, with 30.

I.Ch.:  You mentioned the incident with the daughter of the president. Tell us about what happened, and how Gulnara Karimova helped you.

V.S.:  In 2008, we experienced a "bust" at the Center and the workshop. By "bust," I mean a situation when in broad daylight almost all the city services show up, and this is around 50 people, and each has a bone to pick with you. The tax authorities have their report, then there's the Sanitary & Epidemiological Service, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Department for Combating Extremism, and so on. The agents from National Security Council of Uzbekistan were in charge of everything – a powerful organization that monitors each resident, literally climbing inside every home and in every family, regardless of who – you could be a regular person, or the mayor of the city. It is a modern-day national NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs).  In particular, the NSC ensures that people are not getting together to form what to the NSC are some kind of obscure and suspicious organizations. In Uzbekistan, everything is in clear view.

So, back then, in 2008, we had some partners who were directly connected to the UN. And Gulnara Karimova at the time was the ambassador to that organization, representing Uzbekistan in the world arena. The partners made direct contact with her. In the end, all charges we faced regarding illegal religious activities were dropped and everything about the situation was forgotten. Of course, in 2014, no one could help us anymore.

I.Ch.:  The Uzbek NKVD anyway found its way to you and your ministry. And currently the Center, as far as I know, isn't operating. What did the NSC charge you with?

V.S.:  You won't believe it: exploiting people. It was the same scenario as in 2008. And the same agents from the NSC - Timur and Jabar.

On May 31, a group of 50-60 people stormed into the building housing the rehab center and the workshop. The contents of the safe, documents, office equipment – everything was confiscated, and the premises – sealed. The workshop employees were forced to write statements alleging that the management of the center and the workshop forced them to work against their will, even though we ran a completely legitimate operation.

I.Ch.:  That is, since 2008 there weren't any busts, right?

V.S.:  Yes, that's right. And this wouldn't have happened, I don't think. But the NSC did not like my activities outside of the rehab center. Over the last six months I worked in tandem with our Pentecostal Union coordinating the ministry to join with other denominations in the formation of one union. The ultimate goal was to create the Inter-Evangelical Alliance of Uzbekistan. I also communicated with the leaders of other denominations. The work that was underway was global and was to all appearances dangerous in the eyes of the NSC. After all, any union is a force. And in a country with a totalitarian regime, it's a threat. The authorities find it easier to work with disparate organizations rather than a single one that is large and influential.

I.Ch.:  How did you manage to save yourself?

V.S.:  When the authorities closed the rehab center, we hired a lawyer. And even though in our country, there isn't much a lawyer can do – in the situation with the NSC there was nothing to be done – we needed him in order to more fully understand what was going on.

I very quickly understood that they were "out to get me".

And then on June 12, one of my friends was summoned to yet another interrogation at the prosecutor's. There, the investigator came right out and said that he is initiating a criminal case because he was ordered to do so "from above". And he was told to initiate a case against me, specifically, even though legally I had no connection with the workshop or the rehabilitation center. The investigator also told the lawyer that our business is nonsense and that the Regional Office of Internal Affairs (ROIA) has a statement in their possession alleging that I engaged in human trafficking.

When the lawyer told me all that was said, I called a policeman I know to find out the situation inside the police department. He called me back from an unknown number, and spoke in a rapid, frightened voice. He confirmed that my case is being handled personally by the NSC, and that tomorrow they were going to call me in to an interrogation, after which I, in all probability, would not be allowed to leave. I knew that there were statements, because the day before I received a call from one of the guys who used to live in the rehab center, but  who was expelled for a disciplinary violation. The guy admitted that they took a statement from him, and forced him to write an indictment specifically against me, saying that I exploited their labor. We have Article 135, "Human Trafficking." And this is the Article that they were "priming" me for. As I soon found out, there had been 7 cases like this made against rehabilitation centers. The NSC had their sights on me, personally.

On that very day I bought a plane ticket and flew to Kiev. My family remained at home...

My conversation partner recalled the difficulties of that separation from his family, which ended up lasting 2 months. But Marina, Vlad's wife, has even more difficulty talking about it:

“You see how we live. We haven't properly settled in yet. We had to sell everything on the cheap. But thank God that we live in our own home here. Vlad took care of us,” says Marina, holding on tight to her husband.

I.Ch.:  Marina, tell us about how you lived after Vlad left?

Marina Sekan (M.S.):  You have to know that to understand it, to imagine how I and the children lived, you have to know Vlad himself. For us, he is the master of the house. Attentive to detail, caring, responsible. He was the one who took care of the financial side, making purchases, addressing issues with the utilities and so on. I am a creative person, a choreographer. My world in the family has always been the family itself, first of all – the children. It was important to me that they open up as individuals, and also that they are well fed, and clothed.

And just at this critical moment, I am left without him...

V.S.: We spent a ton of money on phone calls talking about all manner of domestic issues. By phone I usually would negotiate and sell things. At first, of course, we communicated through the computer, but it was confiscated almost immediately after my departure, during a search. Imagine Marina at home with the children, with two elderly people, and then the NSC knocks on the door. She had to open it, or else they would have broken down everything. They were pushy and made threats, but once I explained to them by telephone how this would look in the mass media when I exposed all they were doing, then they changed their tune. In Uzbekistan they fear publicity, because it is important for the country to preserve their public reputation as a democratic state in the eyes of the world, but here's this raid on the home of a believer who was forced to drop everything and leave. Well, just imagine it.

M.S.:  After the search, they would call me in for questioning. There wasn't a day that I didn't cry. My oldest daughter, Lyuba, was a real support to me. She is just 12 years old, but she didn't let me, as they say, "break down."  She's become so grown up.

Lyuba Stekan (L.S.):  Mama was really upset – Papa was gone. That's why I knew I had to help her out.

M.S.:  I came in for questioning with a little baby of one year. They called me in despite my pregnancy and how evidently busy I am with the children. The representatives of authority weren't bothered by this. Even when I cried in the office of the inspector, he would go on with the interrogation. No one, of course, threatened me, but they didn't give me any breaks, either.

And at the same time as this, I have to get passports for the departure of nine children, and sell the house and our belongings. Right now it's like I am remembering it all in a fog. There was too much fear, tears, despair. And it was like this right up until the flight to Kiev. The airport officials in Uzbekistan spent a long time checking us, searching us. This was humiliating and it seemed like we weren't going to make it onto the plane.

But we lifted off on time. I exhaled when were in Ukraine, when we landed and I saw Vlad.

I, you know, understood... That we need to appreciate our men. There is no way now that I'll ever complain that I'm sick of cooking or looking after the children. I stood in the place of my husband, and I realized how much strength, courage, firmness, it takes to protect us, to think about security, planning for the future in all the little details.

I felt that it was important to end the interview precisely at this very moment. A moment of appreciation and love that has grown stronger, deeper. There are still a number of tasks facing Sekan and his family. The house must be put in order, the children placed in schools and kindergartens, children's clubs. They have to adjust to the difficult conditions of life in Ukraine. They understand how fragile happiness can be, but in their eyes you will see no fear. Vlad and Marina do not know what awaits them in the future, where and how their 10th baby will be born.But what can be clearly read in their look is their certainty that no matter what, God is alive and He is near. And there is nothing that the NSC can do about it.

Inga Che,  Mission Eurasia.