ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- Uzbek secret police arrested a Protestant pastor from his church in Andijan last weekend, seven months after a regional prosecutor had accused him of committing high treason.
Pastor Dmitry Shestakov, 37, is apparently now accused of "incitement of national, racial and religious enmity" under Article 156 of Uzbekistan's penal code. If convicted of this charge, he could face up to five years in prison.
In a raid on Shestakov's registered Full Gospel Church in Andijan last Sunday (January 21), secret service officers asked the pastor to step outside with them for five minutes and then immediately escorted him to the nearest police station.
Shestakov has remained in police custody ever since, Protestant sources told Compass.
According to a lawyer who gave Shestakov legal advice last year, the pastor has also been charged under Article 244-1 for the "illegal manufacture and spread of literature which rouses dissension between religions."
Shestakov, his wife and three daughters went into hiding in June 2006 after regional prosecutor Kamolitdin Zulfiev accused the pastor of committing treason under Article 157 of Uzbekistan's penal code.
Though Shestakov had received no written charges at the time, he was informed verbally that authorities also planned to try him under Article 156, according to a June 20 report from Forum 18 News Service.
Growth Brings Harassment
In an October 2006 interview obtained by Compass, Pastor Shestakov described how authorities began to harass him in May 2006, apparently in reaction to the conversion to Christianity of some ethnic Uzbeks.
"Uzbeks started coming to faith [in his church], and this was not good news to the authorities," one Tashkent source told Compass.
In June 2006, police raided the pastor's house, temporarily detaining Shestakov and confiscating videos of his sermons. Although the pastor was ordered to list all of his church members, he refused to do so.
"It was clear that the National State Security were going to find something to charge me with and remove me from my position as a Christian pastor," Shestakov said in the interview.
Authorities also searched Shestakov's Andijan church, confiscating religious CDs and videos and pressuring members of the congregation to testify against their pastor.
Many of the laws contained within Uzbekistan's legal infrastructure violate internationally recognized norms of religious freedom. At the same time, local prosecutors frequently file falsified charges in order to obtain arrest orders against religious leaders perceived to be a threat against "national security."
Discouraged but Determined
Shestakov and his family initially fled Andijan, located in eastern Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley, to avoid arrest. But after several months they returned to a nearby city, continuing covert contact with their Andijan congregation.
"Yes, I do get depressed [and] it is hard to be joyful," Shestakov commented in the October interview. "I am no hero!"
But after pastoring for 13 years, Sheshtakov said he did not believe it would be right to leave his country and abandon the church that he started four years ago in Andijan. Seeking asylum abroad was not an option for him, he said, although he wants to clear his name in his homeland.
"I am called by God to be a pastor to the people in Uzbekistan," the pastor said. "I am on a pilgrimage without a home, a church or status â€“ but with God."
Religious restrictions became especially harsh in Andijan after government troops killed hundreds of protestors in a May 2005 uprising, causing widespread international criticism of Uzbekistan's worsening human rights violations.
"The authorities are more strict on Christians and Muslims after the Andijan events," one Uzbek Christian told Compass. The Uzbek government contends that the Akramia group at the center of the uprising is an Islamic terrorist organization, while Akramia leaders insist it is a peaceful religious group. Christian pastors in the area are also accused of being "extremists" on far-fetched court charges.
The U.S. State Department's 2006 religious freedom report released last September noted a decline in the status of religious freedom within Uzbekistan.
"As in previous years, Protestant groups with ethnic Uzbek members reported operating in a climate of harassment and fear," the report noted.
In November, U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom John Hanford announced the addition of Uzbekistan to Washington's annual list of Countries of Particular Concern for its "abysmal record on religious freedom and other human rights," urging the Uzbek government to "rethink its policies and undertake the necessary reforms."