By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
BUDAPEST/TASHKENT (BosNewsLife)-- Prominent Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov was sentenced Friday, March 9, to four years' exile within Uzbekistan for his evangelistic activities, Christian rights watchers observing the trial said.
Forum 18, a religious rights watchdog, said Shestakov "maintained his innocence" throughout the trial. In his final testimony he reportedly told the court that despite "the tears" of his wife and children he "forgives those who have taken action" against him.
The regional criminal court in the Fergana Valley city of Andijan reportedly ruled he would be sentenced to four years' exile within the country for his activities, but place of exile was not immediately determined. Prosecutors reportedly demanded a five-year prison sentence.
Shestakov was reportedly prosecuted under a controversial Criminal Cores on charges that included "illegal organization of social or religious organizations", as well as "inciting ethnic, racial or religious hatred", and "distributing materials containing ideas of religious extremism," which carry long prison sentenced.
However in remarks published by Forum 18 News, Shestakov's friends said there were numerous irregularities" in the trial, including an expert analysis of his sermons "being illegally conducted" by an Andijan University professor.
They also complained of "forgery of documents by the Prosecutor's Office; false prosecution claims of religious services being conducted in a property not belonging to a registered religious organization; and Pastor Shestakov being illegally charged" under a Criminal Code article that was not in force when the case against him began. Before the trial, Uzbekistan's state-run media allegedly tried to "smear" the pastor and his church.
Shestakov was captured January 21 by secret police who visited him in his thriving Full Gospel Church in the tense town of Andijan, fellow Christians said earlier. His supporters linked the detention to his involvement in distributing Christian literature and concerns among authorities about the "many people" who become Christians in his Adijan church.
There have been reports that Muslim leaders in the troubled town of Andijan expressed concerns over what they see as a rising numbers of converts to Christianity and have welcomed moves against especially Pentecostal Christians within the Protestant community, including Pastor Shestakov's. His wife and three daughters reportedly fled their home and are in hiding.
Fridayâ€™s sentencing of Pastor Shestakov came amid international concern about the whereabouts of two other pastors identified as Salavat Serikbayev, 32, and Makset Djabbarbergenov, 26, who reportedly missed their court date last Monday, February 26, in the regional capital of Nukus to face charges of leading an unregistered religious meeting.
"On February 28 and on following days, police came to the home of Makset Djabbabergenov in Nukus and also to the home of Salauat Serikbayev in the town of Muynak north of Nukus near the Aral Sea, but neither was at home,â€ said Forum 18 News. Serikbayev â€“ who is married with five children â€“ already spent four months in prison in 1999 for his religious activity.
The police search for the pastors also comes amid a government-crackdown on other Pentecostal Christians, Forum 18 said. The human rights group said it has learned that on Februarey 25 about ten police secret police officers armed with video-cameras raided a Pentecostal church's Sunday worship service in the southern city of Karshi They allegedly began to film the service without seeking the approval of the worshippers but Pastor Sergei Shandyvayev "decided not to panic and continued the worship," unidentified sources were quoted as saying.
After the congregation finished the service, police and secret police officers sealed the entrance door and recorded the names and addresses of all those who had attended and began interrogating them separately in different rooms, Forum 18 said.
"Officers tried to pressure them to reveal why they had become Christians and where the church received its money. Police also searched all the rooms and seized Christian literature and audio and video recordings. Officers cited the church's lack of state registration as the reason for the raid, although the church has sought registration in vain for seven years.â€ Some church members were followed to their homes, where their families were then interrogated, Forum 18 said.
Human rights observers have linked the developments to what they call the "ruthlessly authoritarian approach" by President Islam Karimov and his fear of perceived religious and political threats to his power base. In 2005 at least hundreds of people died when security forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrators in Andijan.
Karimov has dominated the leadership since 1989 when he rose to be Communist Party leader in then Soviet Uzbekistan. The following year he became Uzbek president and continued in the post after independence. A referendum held in 1995 extended his term until 2000 when he won the presidential elections unopposed.
Another referendum in 2002 extended the presidential term from five to seven years. The next presidential elections are due this year, but the international community fears they will not be free and fair. (With BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos and reports from Uzbekistan).
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