By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
TASHKENT/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) -- Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov has appealed against the four-year sentence to one of Uzbekistan's open labor camps which was imposed by authorities in retaliation for his Christian work, investigators and local Christians close to the case said Friday, March 23.
A court ruled March 9 that Pastor Shestakov had to be deprived of his freedom "given the absence of the possibility of re-educating him without isolation from society." No date has yet been set for an appeal hearing and Shestakov remains in Prison No. 1 in Andijan until the hearing, said Human rights watchdog Forum 18.
The group said Friday, March 23, the detained pastor, who will celebrate his 38th birthday in April, has been "banned from kneeling to pray and had his copy of the New Testament confiscated." He has reportedly been offered the Koran to read instead. In addition 12 videotapes, seven CDs, two audiotapes and one copy of an Uzbek-language translation of a book "Jesus: More than a Prophet" have to be destroyed, the Andijan Regional Criminal Court said.
Judge M. Tulanov reportedly found Shestakov guilty of violating Criminal Code Article 216, which punishes "illegal organization of social or religious organizations" and Article 244-1 part 2, which punishes "distributing materials containing ideas of religious extremism."
Tulanov's decision however to hand over a combined sentence of four years "in internal exile" in an open labor camp, was described by human rights observers as "the lightest category" of imprisonment in the former Soviet republic.
Shestakov was expected to be required to remain during the night in the open labor camp to which he is assigned, but was likely to be able to find his own work nearby, subject to approval by the prison system.
The Interior Ministry reportedly said such camps is for those "who do not represent a major social danger" and those found guilty of "less serious crimes committed through carelessness".
In a statement released by Forum 18 News, Uzbekistan's Religious Affairs Committee refused to comment saying it had "no information about the case." However the same authorities and state controlled state media previously attacked the pastor for his alleged "subversive" activities.
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 have linked the detention to his involvement in distributing Christian literature and concerns among authorities about the "many people" who become Christians in his Andijan church.
Influential Muslim leaders in Andijan also criticized what they see as a rising numbers of converts to Christianity. They have welcomed moves against especially Pentecostal Christians within the Protestant community, including Pastor Shestakov. His wife and three daughters reportedly fled their home and are in hiding.
Two other pastors, identified as Salavat Serikbayev, 32, and Makset Djabbarbergenov, 26, are also awaiting their trial on charges of "leading an unregistered" religious meeting in Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, in north-western Uzbekistan. Djabbabergenov was among 18 local Protestants detained in January during a raid on a private home in the village of Kaskol-2 near Nukus. All were later freed after an interrogation.
Human rights observers have said the developments are part of 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 country's leadership since 1989 when he rose to be Communist Party leader in then Soviet Uzbekistan.
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