Tashkent (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A court in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent convicted Murat Jalalov, a Protestant, for possessing a copy of a movie about Jesus. Although he avoided a 15-day prison sentence, he was slapped with a 3.1 million Soms (US$ 1,900) fine. In a country that has high levels of poverty, and where the average monthly salary hovers around US$ 23, the fine represents seven years of salary. Jalalov, who said he did not have the money to pay such a huge fine, also lost his passport, seized by the authorities who told him that he could get it back only when he paid the fine.
Fining people involved in “illegal” religious activities is commonplace in Uzbekistan. In a country where the secret police, the National Security Service (NSS), is everywhere, people have been fined in the streets just for handing out religious material.
For instance, one man, a non-believer, was fined for refusing to tell police where his son lived. They wanted the latter for his involvement in religious activities.
Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum18, a human rights organisation, that more than a hundred fines have been inflicted on their members this year.
Whilst claiming that it protects human rights, Uzbekistan cracks down on any religious activity that is not sanctioned by the state. Five members of a Baptist congregation is Samarkand found that out the hard way, with heavy fines.
In Jalalov’s case, five police officers burst into his house on 29 September, seizing 75 DVDs and CDs. One of them was a movie in Uzbek on the life of Jesus produced by the Campus Crusade for Christ. Everything that was removed from the premises was sent for examination to the Religious Affairs Committee, which responded on the same day, saying that the Jesus film “could be used among local ethnicities for missionary purposes" and was therefore not allowed for import and distribution in Uzbekistan.
Under Article 216(2) of the Uzbek Criminal Code, “attracting believers of one faith to another and other missionary activity” are banned. Anyone convicted under this law can get three years in prison.