By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TASHKENT/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) -- Authorities in Uzbekistan have forced evangelical Pastor Dmitri (David) Shestakov to withdraw an appeal against his sentence to four years labor camp, Protestant and other sources following the case said Thursday, May 3.
His appeal was to be heard Tuesday May 1, but in an unexpected move the Andijan Regional Criminal Court reportedly said that Shestakov had "voluntarily" signed a document last month "renouncing his right to an appeal."
The pastor, who celebrated his 38th birthday on April 9, allegedly begged to be transferred immediately to the place of punishment, partly because of his poor health.
However "Christians in the country were surprised to learn that he had withdrawn his appeal," said advocacy group Barnabas Fund in a statement to BosNewsLife. "They suspect that the authorities have put pressure on him of some kind to force him to make this unexpected move," the group added.
Barnabas Fund, which has been involved in supporting the pastor, said his lawyer has not been allowed to see him, "despite repeated" requests. "It is thought that [Shestakov] will now be sent swiftly" to the labor camp "to begin his four-year sentence," Barnabas Fund told BosNewsLife.
It was unclear Thursday, May 3, whether Shestakov was still in Prison No. 1 in the tense town of Andijan, in eastern Uzbekistan, or whether he was on his way to the open labor camp.
Pastor Shestakov was recently sentenced on charges of "incitement to religious hatred", "running an illegal religious organization" and "distributing materials promoting religious extremism." He 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.
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.
There were fears Thursday, May 3, that another pastor in Uzbekistan, 32-year-old Salavat Serikbaev, could face a similar four-year labor camp sentence on similar "religious extremism" charges.
Pastor Salavat's trial began Wednesday, May 2, and "is continuing" but without a lawyer as
he "is conducting his own defense," Barnabas Fund said. Serikbaev, pastor of the evangelical Bethel Church, was reportedly arrested in Muynak a city in Uzbekistanâ€™s troubled region of Karakalpakstan last month, but later allowed to temporarily return to his family.
News of the trials come amid new reports of violence against Christians in the former Soviet republic. Barnabas Fund said that in on one of the latest incidents last Sunday, April 29, some members of Emmanuel Church in the town of Nukus in the region of Karakalpakstan were arrested by the police. "The Christians were threatened and two of them were beaten," the group added.
Uzbek law forbids unregistered religious meetings. Protestant denominations along with all other non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups have been denied registration in Karakalpakstan, essentially outlawing their existence, church observers say.
Barnabas Fund said it had urged its supporters to support its campaign and pray for the detained pastors and for an end of "the harassment of Christians by the Uzbek authorities."
Pressure on Christians has been linked to President Islam Karimov perceived fear of religious and political threats to his power base following deadly riots in 2005 when at least hundreds of people died as security forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrators in Andijan.
Authorities have so far refused to explain the pressure on Christians, but human rights watchers and local believers have complained of what they regard as a state-run media campaign against especially evangelical believers and active Christians in general. (With BosNewsLife reporting and BosNewsLife News Center).
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