UZBEKISTAN: Police beat up Christian women

Uzbek police have raided the home of Valentina Pleshakova (53) and her daughter Natalya (26), who is disabled. They seized religious literature, beat Natalya and took the women to the police station. The Pleshakovas live in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, and attend the Russian Orthodox cathedral.

The Pleshakovas told Uznews, an independent Uzbek news agency, about the attack which took place on 6 August. At 4 pm six men with sticks and bats, led by the local police officer, broke into their home. “When Natalya, who has been disabled since childhood, and who walks with the help of crutches, asked them who these persons were, one of the men gave her a blow, and then the men dragged her to the kitchen in the flat.”

While the men ransacked the flat and collected icons, Bibles, Russian Orthodox calendars and prayer books, the local police officer filmed Natalya and Valentina trying to fend off the blows, hoping to catch the women say something in reaction to the blows and foul language from the men. Then a minibus arrived with an officer and several others in military camouflage, armed with machine-guns. In the presence of officials of the local administration, who are the Pleshakovas’ neighbours, the two women were dragged into the minibus and taken to Mirabad District Police station, where the officials of the local administration were invited as witnesses.

Officers pressurised Natalya to accept Islam, saying that the Muslim faith is “better than Christianity, that a married man can marry them, because men are allowed to have four wives.” The officers threatened and beat the women. They were released at 1.30 am on 7 August, nearly ten hours after the police had arrived at their home.

Court Case

On 7 August, the Pleshakovas were summoned to Tashkent’s Mirabad District Court and found guilty of violating several articles of the Code of Administrative Offences, including “Illegal production, storage, or import into Uzbekistan with a purpose to distribute or distribution of religious materials by physical persons”, “Failure to carry out the lawful demands of a police officer or other persons carrying out duties to guard public order”, and “Resisting the orders of police officers”. They were each fined 1,447,100 Soms (€580 Euro), which is 20 times the minimum monthly wage.

The verdict, which the women received a week later, alleged that they stored in their home literature that the state Religious Affairs Committee described as publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the activities of whom is banned in Tashkent. The verdict claimed the women engaged in illegal missionary activity by spreading Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and that they resisted the police officers who searched their flat.

The Pleshakovas appealed against the fines, and their case was taken up by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Uzbekistan, Metropolitan Vikenty. On 23 August, a judge at Tashkent’s Criminal Court cancelled the fines, but the Court upheld the decision that the Pleshakovas violated the Religion Law. Taking into account that the daughter is disabled and that the mother is a pensioner, the Court confined the decision to a warning. The court also upheld the decision that the confiscated literature should be destroyed.

MEDIA SMEAR CAMPAIGN

On 27 August, state-sponsored information agency Gorizont published an article alleging that the Pleshakovas (and another recently-fined Uzbek Orthodox Christian, Muhabbat Mamatkulova) are “hypocrites” and are not Russian Orthodox. “They regularly read the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature, and attend their assemblies,” the author claims, likening them to “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and claiming that Muhabbat Mamatkulova is a member of an ethnic Korean-led Protestant Church who presents herself as Russian Orthodox. She was found guilty of “giving illegal religious lessons” (she privately taught religion to her daughter Omina) and fined by Kokand City Court in August.

The Gorizont agency has a long history of attacking members of religious communities the authorities do not like, including Baha’is, Baptists and other Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Independent human rights defenders in Uzbekistan have stated that Gorizont is sponsored by the National Security Service secret police.

A member of the Orthodox community from Tashkent, who wished to remain unnamed for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 on 6 September that Metropolitan Vikenty petitioned for Muhabbat Mamatkulova and her fine was cancelled. The Orthodox member said, “All three indeed are Russian Orthodox believers, and attend the Church regularly.” Asked why then the police and the media falsely identified the Pleshakovas as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mamatkulova as a Protestant, the Orthodox Christian told said that in both cases local police officers were to blame – they “made mistakes, and mistook them for someone else”.

State-backed local media also reported raids and fines in August on other religious communities, with unsympathetic portrayals of the communities’ activity, and on 22 August Uzbek State Television warned its viewers to read only state-authorised religious books. (Forum 18)