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KAZAKHSTAN: Three pastors' convictions "an unjust court decision"

Source:                  www.forum18.org

Date:                       November 14, 2019

 


http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2521
By Felix Corley, Forum 18

Three self-exiled Protestant pastors given long jail terms in absentia for
leading New Life Pentecostal Church in Kazakhstan's commercial capital
Almaty lost their appeal at Almaty City Court on 1 November. The decision
came into force when the appeal verdict was issued in writing on 11
November. The three have said they will appeal to Kazakhstan's Supreme
Court in the capital Nur-Sultan.

This latest criminal case was launched in July 2015, and was the third case
against the Church or Church leaders brought over the years on a changing
range of accusations.

The first two cases – which had heavy involvement of the National
Security Committee (KNB) secret police - had been abandoned. The third
finally reached one Almaty court in February 2019, only to be transferred
the following month to another court (see below).

The pastors were variously accused of founding the Church in 1991 with
"criminal intent", and "by means of the technology of psychological and
psychotherapeutic influence with the aim of causing psychological harm to
the health and stealing others' property by means of deception and abuse of
trust .. with the use of information technologies and methods of turning
the victims into a state of changed consciousness (trance)". At one point
police accused the church of storing weapons. This charge was dropped as
the only such item confiscated was an aerosol spray gun freely available on
the internet (see below).

In the case of one of the nine "victims", the three pastors were accused of
harming her health from six months before she was born and when one of the
three pastors was only just 17 years old (see below).

In November 2018 police suggested to current Pastor Ivan Kryukov that the
problems could be resolved if New Life Church pays money. "We refused," the
Pastor stated. In February 2019 the Church was told that if it collaborated
with the KNB secret police it would no longer face problems. "I told them I
can't agree to this," Pastor Kryukov told Forum 18. Later in 2019 an
official came to the Almaty Church office from the capital and was also in
contact by phone. He indicated that officials would not touch the Church's
main building "if we're quiet" and "don't go out on the streets" to protest
against the verdict in the case of the three pastors. "I told them that we
won't go out on the streets, but will defend our rights in court," Pastor
Kryukov told Forum 18 (see below).

The case against the three pastors is "complete drivel", Yevgeny Zhovtis of
the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law
commented. "I have read the verdict. It is nonsense" (see below).

On 29 July, Pastor Maxim Maximov was sentenced to five years' imprisonment,
and his wife Pastor Larisa Maximova and Pastor Sergei Zaikin each to four
years' imprisonment. Pastor Maximov was also banned from leading a
religious organisation for one year. Five properties and the money in one
bank account were ordered confiscated, even though two of the properties
belong to the Church, not to Maximov, and the Church is still using them.
The three were also ordered to pay damages to eight alleged victims, as
well as court fees. Computers confiscated in raids were ordered confiscated
(see below).

The three convicted pastors now live in the United States. Pastor Zaikin
told Forum 18 on 14 November that "we still want to return to Kazakhstan".

Pastor Ivan Kryukov – who testified on behalf of the three alongside many
other church members in the original trial – pointed out that the Church
itself is not a party to the case and is therefore unable to challenge the
decision itself. He stresses that the court ordered confiscated two
properties belonging to the Church, which it still regularly uses. In
addition, three Church buildings – including the Church building itself -
remain under a restraining order imposed in 2016 and Church computers
confiscated in the large-scale 2016 raid have not been returned (see
below).

An appeal was made against the verdicts, but in its 1 November decision
Almaty City Court left the lower court decision unchanged (see below).

The head of the Social Accord Department (whose role includes restricting
freedom of religion and belief) at Almaty City Administration, Yergali
Kesheke, insisted to Forum 18 that his Department has no complaints about
New Life Church. He then claimed not to know that the Church's main
building and three other buildings have been under a restraining order
since 2016 and that computers confiscated from the Church then have not
been returned. He said this is not an issue for his Department (see below).

Pastor Kryukov says attendance at New Life Church's various services on an
average Sunday in Almaty is currently about 850.

"Working as one mechanism as in the Soviet Union"

"At this point Kazakhstan's legal system consists of the KNB secret police
and its regional departments, the General Prosecutor's office and its
regional departments, the Interior Ministry and its regional departments,
and the Supreme Court and regional and district courts," Yevgeni Zhovtis of
the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law
told Forum 18 on 14 November.

"All these are working as one mechanism as in the Soviet Union and under
strict political control," Zhovtis observed. "The only question: after
whom, when, and why does this mechanism plan to go after? After the
political opposition, independent journalists, civic activists, or some
Islamic groups or non-traditional neo-Christian religious associations, or
their members?"

"And the charges will be brought and evidence will be provided only to show
some elements of the due process of law, with the predetermined result,"
Zhovtis commented on the case against the New Life Church pastors.

"This was an unjust court decision"

"This was an unjust court decision," New Life Church's current pastor Ivan
Kryukov told Forum 18 after the City Court rejected the pastors' appeal.
"There is no proof that the three committed any wrongdoing."

Altynbai Buranbayeva of Almaty Prosecutor's Office, who represented the
prosecution at the appeal hearing, refused to discuss anything about the
case. She also refused to say if the restraining order on the Church itself
and its other buildings will be lifted. "I can't give any information by
phone," she told Forum 18 in answer to every question on 13 November.

New Life Church's reputation and property

New Life Church has faced repeated attacks on it through the
state-controlled media, although they have lessened in recent years.
Official comments about the criminal case against the three pastors since
Almaty Police went public with the accusations when officers raided the
Church in March 2016 (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2163)
have harmed the Church's reputation, with little possibility for its
rebuttals of the accusations to be heard.

The conviction of the three pastors in July 2019 had a "big impact" on
church members, not only in the Almaty New Life Church but in other New
Life congregations around Kazakhstan, a member of a congregation in another
city told Forum 18.

In particular, the court's characterisation of Almaty's New Life Church as
a criminal enterprise that harms people's psychological health by the use
of manipulation and extracts money from church members fraudulently –
accusations the Church vigorously rejects - harms the image of the Church,
church members told Forum 18.

On 29 July, the day the lower court issued its verdict, the Court website
claimed the three pastors held "regular so-called services, during which,
using the 'anchoring' method in the audio-kinesthetic and
visual-kinesthetic modality and other methods of psychological impact, the
victims suffered serious harm to their health, which later developed in the
form of a mental illness". The Court statement was widely republished by
state-controlled media.

More than three and a half years after the police raid on New Life Church
in 2016 (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2163), almost all
New Life Church's property remains under a restraining order – even
though the Church not the three accused owns the property. This includes
the Church's main building with its worship hall, as well as three other
properties in Almaty.

Almaty's New Life Church – which remains a registered religious
organisation – has not been prevented from opening and running bank
accounts.

In addition to the four Church properties under a restraining order, New
Life Church states that two of the five properties ordered confiscated from
Pastor Maxim Maximov belong not to him but to the Church. Pastor Maximov
signed the purchase contract (seen by Forum 18) on 4 February 1993 on
behalf of the Church. The Church subsequently used the buildings for a
rehabilitation centre.

Similarly, Church-owned computers confiscated during the March 2016 police
raid on the Church (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2163)
have not been returned.

Altynbai Buranbayeva of Almaty Prosecutor's Office, who represented the
prosecution at the appeal hearing in the criminal case against the three
pastors, refused to explain to Forum 18 on 13 November how the two
properties owned and used by the Church could be ordered confiscated from
Pastor Maximov. She also refused to explain why the Church's property
remains under a restraining order and how the Church can have this lifted.

The head of the Social Accord Department (whose role includes restricting
freedom of religion and belief) at Almaty City Administration, Yergali
Kesheke, insisted to Forum 18 on 13 November that his Department has no
complaints about New Life Church. He then claimed not to know that the
Church's main building and three other buildings have been under a
restraining order since 2016 and that computers confiscated from the Church
then have not been returned. He said this is not an issue for his
Department.

Kesheke added that New Life Church has not asked his Department for help in
having the restraining order on its property lifted. Pastor Kryukov told
Forum 18 the Church has not appealed to the Department because it has no
influence.

Major Aleksei Chapurin of Almaty Police, who investigated the Church and
the three pastors, refused to discuss with Forum 18 on 13 November why
Church property remains under a restraining order three and a half years
after it was imposed when the criminal case was not against the Church.

"It will take a long time to lift the restraining order on the Church's
property," Pastor Kryukov told Forum 18.

Bribe or collaboration to end restrictions on Church?

Officials have repeatedly offered to end New Life Church's problems under
certain conditions.

Pastor Kryukov said that police officers had suggested to him at a meeting
in November 2018 that the problems could be resolved if the Church pays
money. "We refused," he added. Others have also told Forum 18 of earlier
attempts by officials to extract bribes before Kryukov became Pastor.

Corruption is widespread in Kazakhstan, and Transparency International's
Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 ranks the country poorly at 124 out of
175 countries.

In February 2019, officials called the Church and insisted that if it
collaborated with the KNB secret police, it would no longer face problems.
Church leaders would no longer be held up at the border for intrusive
questioning, the officials added. "I told them I can't agree to this,"
Pastor Kryukov told Forum 18.

Later in 2019 an official came to the Almaty Church office from the capital
and was also in contact by phone. He indicated that officials would not
touch the Church's main building "if we're quiet" and "don't go out on the
streets" to protest against the verdict in the case of the three pastors.
"I told them that we won't go out on the streets, but will defend our
rights in court," Pastor Kryukov told Forum 18.

Secret criminal cases, raids

Pastor Maxim Maximov founded New Life Pentecostal Church in the then
capital Almaty in 1991. It gained state registration and so permission to
exist on 9 July 1991, when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union.
It gained re-registration on 19 October 2012 after Kazakhstan imposed
compulsory re-registration on all religious organisations after the
adoption of the 2011 Religion Law.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2409) Some of its branches
faced difficulties, the branch in Shymkent initially being banned from
using its previously registered building and having to move to a new
address. (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1599)

In 2000, New Life Church started a Russian-language cable and satellite
television channel CNL from its Almaty premises. However, opposition from
the state – and police confiscation of its equipment during raids in 2016
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2163) – meant that the
Almaty Church could no longer participate in preparing programming. TV
programmes are now prepared in the United States, Russia, Ukraine and
elsewhere.

State-controlled media long vilified New Life Church in Almaty and other
cities, as well as other religious groups the regime dislikes.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1123) State-funded
"anti-sect centres" such as Perspective in Almaty described New Life Church
at a 28 August 2009 press conference as conducting "commercial activities
under the guise of Christian slogans". These state-funded views were
uncritically repeated by the state-controlled media.

Such state-funded so-called "anti-sect centres" have long been used to
encourage hostility against the exercise of freedom of religion and belief,
including by churches such as New Life.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1568)

Raids took place against New Life and its branches in other cities, as well
as attempts to recruit KNB secret police informers.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1325) Between October 2009
and December 2010 the Financial Police in Almaty and Almaty KNB secret
police conducted extensive investigations into New Life Church. No criminal
case was brought, though both bodies held "evidence" that was later used in
other cases.

Between November 2012 and February 2014, the tax authorities investigated
New Life Church over why it had not paid tax on donated Bibles. The Church
was fined.

In July 2013, police began investigating a criminal case that the Church
had harmed an individual's health. The KNB eventually dropped the case.
Another criminal investigation was launched in October 2013 on similar
charges, which appears also to have been closed down.

Criminal accusations

Police in the commercial capital Almaty opened the most recent known
criminal case against Almaty's New Life Church on 29 July 2015. The Church
was not informed of the case until police and other state agencies raided
five church-owned buildings and the home of the six leaders of New Life
Pentecostal Church in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty on 25 March
2016, when the Church was meeting to mark the important Christian
commemoration of Good Friday.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2163)

The case was opened on the initiative of one of the "victims", who had left
the Church in 2007, according to case materials. The KNB secret police
suggested that she take her complaint to the state-funded Perspective
anti-sect centre, which then found other complainants. Another state-funded
"anti-sect centre" commented on the March 2016 Good Friday raids that "New
Life is clearly a sect, which propagates ideas foreign to Kazakhstan's
values and mentality". (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1568)

On 20 September 2016, according to case materials, the head of the KNB
secret police in Almaty, Nurlan Mazhilov, and police and tax office
officials created a 15-strong inter-departmental investigative group to
find proof that New Life Church had committed crimes.

July convictions, jail terms

Prosecutors finally handed the 53 volumes of the criminal case against
Pastors Maximov, Maximova and Zaikin to Almaty's Almaly District Court on
21 February. However, on 11 March Judge Ernar Kasymbekov at the court
handed it to Almaty's Specialised Inter-District Court for Minors, as one
of the "victims" had been a minor when the alleged "crimes" had taken place
(indeed, she had not been born when prosecutors initially alleged the
"crimes" had begun).

The trial began at the Specialised Inter-District Court for Minors on 4
April under Judge Gulshakhar Chinibekova, according to court records.

"I have read the verdict. It is nonsense"

On 29 July, Judge Chinibekova found both Pastor Maxim Maximov and Pastor
Sergei Zaikin guilty under 1997 Criminal Code Article 103, Part 2
("Deliberately causing severe harm to health"), 2014 Criminal Code Article
190, Part 3 ("Fraud"), and 1997 Criminal Code Article 337, Part 1
("Creation or leadership in the activity of illegal social and other
associations").

Judge Chinibekova found Pastor Maximov's wife Pastor Larisa Maximova guilty
under the first two Criminal Code charges as her two colleagues, as well as
1997 Criminal Code Article 337, Part 3 ("Active participation in the
activity of illegal social and other associations").

The Judge sentenced Pastor Maximov to five years' imprisonment, and Pastor
Maximova and Pastor Zaikin each to four years' imprisonment, according to
the verdict seen by Forum 18.

The case against the three pastors is "complete drivel", Yevgeny Zhovtis of
the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law
told Radio Free Europe's Kazakh Service on 26 September. "I have read the
verdict. It is nonsense."

On 29 July, the Judge sentenced Pastor Maximov to five years' imprisonment,
and Pastor Maximova and Pastor Zaikin each to four years' imprisonment,
according to the verdict seen by Forum 18.

Judge Chinibekova also banned Pastor Maximov from leading a religious
organisation for one year. She ordered confiscated five properties and the
money in one bank account, even though two of the properties belong to the
Church, not to Maximov. The three were also ordered to pay damages to eight
alleged victims, as well as court fees. Computers confiscated in raids were
ordered confiscated.

City Court rejects appeal

The Almaty-based lawyer Aiman Umarova lodged an appeal against the 29 July
convictions of Maximov, Maximova and Zaikin to Almaty City Court on 12
August. On behalf of her clients she vigorously refuted all the allegations
against them.

Umarova is a human rights lawyer who does not belong to the Church, and who
has defended Muslim prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom
of religion and belief. These include Kuanysh Bashpayev jailed for four and
a half years in 2017 (http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2457),
and Saken Tulbayev jailed for four years eight months in 2015.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2108)

The three pastors' appeal (seen by Forum 18) notes that the prosecution
made no attempt to prove that the three pastors established the church
"with criminal intent". They said it was unlikely that anyone would be able
to keep an individual under psychological influence for a period of eight
to 10 years as the prosecution claimed had been the case. "These victims
would not have made any statements to date had they not been forced to do
so by law enforcement officials," they maintained.

The appeal notes that, questioned during the investigation, the "experts"
who had examined the alleged "victims" of the three pastors admitted that
"methodology for conducting examinations had not been developed up to now
and research method was determined for each of the victims on an individual
basis". The "experts" could not prove that the three pastors had caused
their psychological state. The appeal notes that "hundreds of thousands" of
people had attended the Church during this time.

The appeal points out that the case followed that of Yerzhan Ushanov,
Pastor of New Life Church in Taraz in the southern Zhambyl Region, for
praying for someone's health in May 2011. In a KNB-initiated case, he was
convicted in September 2011 under Criminal Code Article 111, Part 1
("causing severe damage to health due to negligence") and given a heavy
fine. Only in April 2012 was he finally acquitted by the Supreme Court.
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1705)

The three pastors' appeal also notes that the prosecution did not prove
that the nine "victims" had handed over donations to the Church because of
the psychological pressure from the three pastors.

The appeal questions why the "victims" wrote their primary statements to
the KNB secret police, not to the ordinary police. "It is puzzling that the
KNB (Department for the Struggle against Extremism, Separatism and
Terrorism) initiated this case," the appeal states. "It seems that the KNB
secret police sees Protestants as a threat to the security of the country
and considers them possible terrorists. At the same time, it is well known
that there has never been terrorism and extremism among Evangelical
Christians. This case is evidence of persecution and violation of the
rights of Evangelical Christians on religious grounds."

The appeal claims police investigator Major Aleksei Chapurin fabricated the
case with input from a range of other KNB secret police and ordinary police
officers.

The lawyer Umarova also notes in the appeal that not once did investigators
seek to find out the whereabouts of her clients or to put questions to
them. She noted that "their purpose was clear - to ban me from this case in
any way".

Umarova also pointed out the lack of time to prepare the defence case.
"Over many years the investigator and prosecutors had the opportunity to
fabricate the case, but when I suddenly learned that the case was already
in court, I was given only a few days to study those 53 volumes," she noted
in the appeal. "It also shows that my clients are not given an equitable
fair opportunity to defend themselves against false artificial
accusations."

Appeal hearings began at Almaty City Court on 2 October, according to court
records.

At the appeal hearing, Prosecutor Altinai Buranbayeva of Almaty
Prosecutor's Office insisted that the verdict should remain unchanged, as
the three pastors' "crimes" had been proved in the lower court.

The lawyer for the alleged "victims", Bolat Omarov, insisted that the three
pastors' guilt in causing serious moral and financial harm had been proved.
He too called on the court to reject their appeal. Several "victims" asked
for the compensation to them to be increased.

The defence lawyer Umarova told the court that proof of any harm caused by
the three had not been proven and called for the court to uphold the
appeal. She also pointed to numerous procedural violations in the case.

On 1 November, a panel of three judges at Almaty City Court chaired by
Judge Yerzhan Kenenbayev rejected the appeal by the three pastors. The
Judges issued their written verdict (seen by Forum 18) on 11 November. The
decision came into force when the written verdict was issued.

Following the oral delivery of the verdict on 1 November, Umarova told
Kazis Toguzbayev of Radio Free Europe's Kazakh Service – who was present
at the hearing – that she felt the defendants should lodge a further
appeal but that it would be their decision. The lawyer Omarov told
Toguzbayev that he would not be appealing further on behalf of the alleged
"victims".

Appeals to Supreme Court, United Nations?

Following the rejection of their appeal, all three pastors said they
intended to appeal to Kazakhstan's Supreme Court in the capital Nur-Sultan.
They have until 11 November 2020 to lodge any appeal.

Pastor Maximov also insisted that, if they lose in the Supreme Court, they
would lodge an appeal to the United Nations human rights mechanisms in
Geneva. (END)

Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Kazakhstan
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=29)

For more background, see Forum 18's Kazakhstan religious freedom survey
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2409)

Forum 18's compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments
(http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1351)

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