TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (ABP) — A judge in Uzbekistan has found three Baptist leaders guilty of tax evasion and involving children in religious activities without their parents' permission, ending a high-profile trial in the Uzbek capital city of Tashknet Oct. 29.
Judge Nodyr Akbarov of Yakkasaray District Criminal Court ordered Pavel Peichev, president of the Baptist Union of Uzbekistan, and two colleagues to pay fines equivalent to $5,760 — more than nine times the average annual wage in Uzbekistan.
The court also banned Peichev and two other defendants — Baptist union accountant Yelena Kurbatova and Dimitry Pitirimov, director of a Baptist-sponsored summer youth camp — from administrative and financial activity for three years.
Pitirimov told Forum 18, an international news service that monitors alleged violations of religious freedom, that he believed the "real intention" of the case was to remove the three leaders in an attempt to disrupt the nation's Baptist community.
The trial and conviction of the three Baptists in Tashkent are part of a general crackdown on religious minorities in Uzbekistan. Thousands of Muslims have been imprisoned for rejecting the state's control over religious practices or for belonging to what the government views as extremist groups.
State-run media also encourage prejudice against certain Christian groups by accusing missionaries of posing a threat to society and equating them with religious extremists. This summer a news agency ran articles targeting "Camp Joy," a Baptist-sponsored camp that has been held each summer for at least 10 years. The stories prompted an investigation that led to the arrests of Peichev, Kurbatova and Pitirimov in July.
According to observers, a government official testified during the trial that he found out about the campsite only this year and did not know children went there to vacation. Other state witnesses did not show up, an illustration of what critics described as the court's selectivity in enforcing subpoenas.
The defense said parents who send their children to Camp Joy know it is a Baptist camp. Children who arrive and say they don't want to participate in religious activities are routinely driven home.
Last year 538 campers attended the eight-day retreat, which features rock-climbing, hiking and other recreation.
Observers fear that a government campaign of increased scrutiny of religious activity will lead to an effort to force re-registration of churches, which could result in closings of even long-standing officially recognized churches in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan's Constitution provides for freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, but a religion law in 1998 restricts many rights only to registered religious groups and limits which groups may register.
Out of 2,228 registered religious congregations and organizations, 2,048 are mosques, Muslim educational institutions or Islamic centers. Of 180 registered minority religious groups, 23 are Baptist. No Baptist church has successfully registered in the country since 1999, though some have tried to register several times in past years without success.
Peichev, Kurbatova and Pitirimov indicated that they plan to appeal the verdict against them as soon as they receive copies of the court decision. They could have been sentenced to up to three years in prison.
In addition to fines levied against the three individuals, the judge ruled that the Baptist union owes $2,380 in unpaid taxes. During the trial the three Baptist leaders said as a registered religious organization, the union is exempt from paying taxes and there was no income to tax, because the camp is not-for-profit.
Only family members of the defendants were allowed in the court room, but church members rallied outside the courthouse to show their support for the Baptist leaders.
–Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.
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