05/14/2007, 00.00
UZBEKISTAN
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Prison for clerics but some in the West prefer to think about oil

A Pentecostal pastor, Salavat Serikbayev, was sentenced to two years in prison because he was “teaching religion” in a house. In Uzbekistan, persecution continues against pastors and human rights activists. But some in the EU are considering toning down sanctions imposed after the Andijan massacre, not least because this may give them access to energy sources.

Tashkent (AsiaNews/F18) – A Pentecostal pastor, Salavat Serikbayev, was handed down a two-year suspended prison sentence in Nukus, the capital of the Karakalpakstan, on 9 May, for “teaching religion illegally”. Serikbayev has now returned home but could be jailed if he carries out any further “unauthorised” religious activities. Meanwhile, the European Union must decide whether or not to confirm sanctions against Uzbekistan as groups of Uzbek exiles commemorated the Andijan massacre yesterday.

The news agency Forum 18 said the pastor was also banned from going abroad for two years and that he must pay, as a fine, 20% of any income he may earn. Some policemen said they saw him “teaching religion” when they broke into a private home, although he has always denied this charge. He was imprisoned for four months in 1999 for his religious activities and for years, the mahalla (district) where he lives has deprived his family of social welfare, including health care.

All religious activity that is not authorized by the state is considered to be a crime, even gathering at home to pray or to teach religion. Only Islam and Russian-Orthodox Christianity gain permission for such activities with ease. In Karakalpakstan, permission has been denied to all other religions.

Meanwhile, today, the European Union must decide whether to maintain sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan after the Andijan massacre on 13 May 2005, when police fired on a crowd that was protesting peacefully, killing more than 1000 people, according to eye witnesses (the government that “only” 87 people had been killed and it has always refused to allow an independent inquiry into what happened).

According to Lotte Leicht, of Human Rights Watch (HRW), “conditions in Uzbekistan in the last two years have only deteriorated”.  She said: “The government has not cooperated with an international inquiry as sought by the European Union, and it has launched an unprecedented crackdown on civil society, journalists, and human rights activists.” In April, the authorities ordered the closure of the HRW office in Tashkent.

But several European countries, including Germany, appear to want to make sanctions lighter and to resume dialogue on human rights, a proposal recently made by Tashkent.

Analysts say the West is finding it difficult to reconcile respect for human rights with the need to access energy and minerals in central Asia. What’s more, it is worried because China and Russia have made the most of the situation to consolidate ties with Uzbekistan.

Yesterday, in some European cities, groups of exiled Uzbeks recalled the episode with public rallies. On 12 May, in Brussels, they called on the EU to reinforce sanctions against Uzbekistan.
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