U.S. Congressmen Press Uzbekistan to Free Protestant Pastor

( [email protected] ) May 16, 2007 03:09 PM EDT

WASHINGTON – A dozen members of Congress have joined together to write a letter to the president of Uzbekistan urging him to release protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov, who was sentenced recently to four years of hard labor for his peaceful religious activities.

The effort to free the pastor was led by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who is co-chairman of the Congressional Taskforce for International Religious Freedom. The letter was sent last Friday.

“We are urging President Karimov to uphold Uzbekistan’s international commitments and release Pastor Shestakov immediately and unconditionally,” said Franks, in a statement. “It is very alarming that a pastor would be jailed for merely exercising his fundamental religious freedom rights, and I hope President Karimov will end these Soviet-like practices and respond positively to our concerns.”

Shestakov, 38, was sentenced on Mar. 9 to four years of imprisonment at a work camp for leading his congregation, which is a branch of the city’s registered Full Gospel church.

Protestants in Uzbekistan have pointed to the many suspicious claims made by the government and the injustice of the pastor’s trial, such as claims that Shestakov “voluntarily” renounced his right to an appeal on Apr. 25 when he had earlier on Mar. 16 filed an appeal against his sentence and complained about the delay of the appeal, according to Forum 18, a Norwegian human rights organization.

In addition, M. Mamadaliev, a senior aide to the Andijan City prosecutor, has continued to summon members of Shestakov’s church for questioning since Apr. 5. Forum 18 reports that 14 church members have been summoned at least once by the office. However, the members refuse to respond to the summons, justifying that they are illegal.

In similar case, a Pentecostal Christian was recently given a two-year suspended jail sentence for teaching religion illegally in Uzbekistan. Salavat Serikbayev last Thursday was told he could be jailed if he commits further “crime” such as conducting religious activities deemed illegal by the government. He is also prohibited from leaving the country and the court demanded he turn over 20 percent of any money he earns. Serikbayev, however, does not have a job and he lives in a town where about 80 percent of the people are unemployed.

Shestakov’s and Serikbayev’s cases are among the many struggles that Protestants in Uzbekistan continuously face as they try to maintain their faith.

“Last year, the State Department correctly designated Uzbekistan a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ for its egregious violations of religious freedom,” said Franks. “The continuation of these repressive policies against Christians and Muslims would certainly justify the application of stronger actions under the International Religious Freedom Act. The United States cannot stand silent while people of faith are persecuted for their beliefs.”

The U.S. State Department designated Uzbekistan for the first time a “Country of Particular Concern” in November 2006. The country is composed of 88 percent Muslims, mostly Sunnis; 9 percent Eastern Orthodox, and three percent other religions, including Protestants.

It is still unclear whether Shestakov is still in Prison No. 1 in Andijan, in eastern Uzbekistan, or whether he has been transported to the open work camp.