KYRGYZSTAN: New restrictions in draft new Religion Law

Source:                 www.forum18.org

Date:                      December 16, 2021



The draft Religion Law prepared by the State Commission for Religious
Affairs would – if adopted in current form – continue to ban worship
meetings and religious education without state permission; make registering
small religious communities more difficult or impossible; and might make it
impossible to register communities that do not own their own buildings. It
would continue to require 200 adults to found a community and apply for
compulsory registration, but would require them to live in one Region. For
the first time places of worship would need registration. An Amending Law
would introduce new punishments. Manas Muratbekov of the SCRA's Legal
Department who prepared both draft laws refused to discuss them.

KYRGYZSTAN: New restrictions in draft new Religion Law
https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2705
By Felix Corley, Forum 18

A draft new Religion Law prepared by the State Commission for Religious
Affairs (SCRA) would – if eventually adopted in its current form – make
it more difficult to exercise freedom of religion or belief. Among new
restrictions, registering small religious communities would be more
difficult or impossible, and the draft might also make it impossible to
register communities that do not own their own buildings.

The draft Law would continue to require 200 adults to found a religious
community and apply for compulsory registration, but would now require them
to live in one Region of the country. All 200 would be required to attend
the founding meeting in person and have their full personal details
recorded and notarised. "It is physically impossible to gather more than
200 people at one notary's office to certify the list of founders with a
record of the passport details of these citizens, as well as the record of
the founding meeting on one day," Bishkek lawyer Zhanara Askar kyzy
insists. She also warned that such notarisation would be expensive (see
below).

The draft Law would also continue the current ban on meetings for worship
and religious education without state permission (see below).

Another of the provisions violating human rights is that, for the first
time, the draft Law would require individuals or religious communities to
gain registration from the SCRA for places of worship that they use,
whether owned or rented (see below).

Compulsory state registration and the high membership threshold required to
found a religious organisation are among the draft Law's provisions which
violate legally-binding international human rights standards. These
standards include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
(ICCPR), to which Kyrgyzstan acceded in 1994 (see below).

The SCRA prepared the draft text on 2 November, exactly a month after
President Sadyr Japarov signed a Concept on State Policy in the Religious
Sphere 2021-26. This called for laws "in the religious sphere" to be
brought into line with "international human rights standards" (see below).

The SCRA claimed the draft would not bring "negative consequences",
including in terms of human rights or corruption. Manas Muratbekov, head of
the SCRA's Legal Department who prepared both draft laws, refused to
discuss the texts' violation of human rights with Forum 18 (see below).

The Justice Ministry's website of draft laws open for public discussion
published the draft text on 13 December, noting that any comments are to be
submitted by 12 January 2022 (see below).

The SCRA has also prepared an Amending Law which would bring the Violations
Code and other laws into line with the new Religion Law. This too is open
for public consultation until 12 January 2022 (see below).

The draft Laws would have to be approved by Parliament, the Zhogorku
Kenesh, and be signed by the President to become law.

No harm to human rights?

The SCRA's accompanying notes for both draft laws claim that their adoption
would not bring "negative consequences", including in terms of human rights
or corruption. The SCRA appears to expect these two Laws to be adopted in
early 2022 (see below).

Manas Muratbekov, head of the SCRA's Legal Department who prepared both
draft laws, refused to discuss the texts on 15 December. Forum 18 asked:

- why the proposed new Law would continue to ban exercising freedom of
religion or belief without state permission;

- why 200 adults would still be required to apply to register a religious
community and why they would all have to live in one Region;

- why religious communities would not be able to use a home address as the
community's legal address;

- and whether officials will require all registered religious communities
to re-register if the law is adopted.

Muratbekov told Forum 18 to send its questions in writing and put the phone
down.

No other SCRA official was willing to discuss the draft laws either. A
Deputy Director Gulnaz Isayeva referred all questions on 15 December to the
press secretary. However, her phone went unanswered on 15 and 16 December.

Compulsory state registration and the high membership threshold required to
found a religious organisation are among the draft Law's provisions which
violate legally-binding international human rights standards. These
standards include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
(ICCPR), to which Kyrgyzstan acceded in 1994.

The UN Human Rights Committee's 2014 Concluding Observations
(CCPR/C/KGZ/CO/2 (https://undocs.org/CCPR/C/KGZ/CO/2)) on Kyrgyzstan's
ICCPR record stressed that amendments to the 2008 Religion Law should
"remove all restrictions incompatible with article 18 of the Covenant, by
providing for a transparent, open and fair registration process of
religious organizations and eliminating distinctions among religions that
may lead to discrimination".

Draft new Religion Law part of "rushed" review of laws

The SCRA notes accompanying the publication of the draft new Religion Law
and the draft Amending Law says they were prepared in response to a
presidential Decree of 8 February 2021 ordering a review of "concepts,
strategies, programmes and laws" by the end of 2021. A total of 356 laws
were included in the review. Working Groups were established to revise laws
in different areas.

The Working Group examination of the current Religion Law "revealed
multiple contradictions and gaps, the elimination of which is more than
half of the text of the Law", the accompanying note on the proposed draft
Religion Law from SCRA Director Toigonbai Abdykarov declares. (Abdykarov
has headed the SCRA since 3 June.)

Human rights groups in the country criticised what they saw as a "rushed"
review of so many laws and in ways that violated human rights. They asked
for the review to be allowed more time, 24.kg news website noted on 1
September.

The government "allocated far too short a time frame, causing hasty
assessments, government interference in sensitive issues, and lack of
consultation with those affected by these laws," Syinat Sultanalieva of
Human Rights Watch noted on 17 November
(https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/11/17/kyrgyzstan-extend-time-massive-review-laws).

Public comments by 12 January 2022

The SCRA prepared the draft text of the new Religion Law on 2 November,
exactly a month after it was announced that President Sadyr Japarov had
signed a Concept on State Policy in the Religious Sphere 2021-26. The
Concept called for laws "in the religious sphere" to be brought into line
with the Constitution and with "international human rights standards". At
the same time, the Concept called for "a reduction in the number of
[religious] associations illegally carrying out their activity".

The SCRA handed the draft text of the new Religion Law on 23 November to
participants at a discussion in the capital Bishkek. The United Nations
Development Programme's Bishkek office sponsored public discussions of the
draft in Bishkek and in the seven other Regions of the country.

On 13 December, the Justice Ministry's website of draft laws open for
public discussion finally published the SCRA's slightly modified draft text
of the proposed new Religion Law in both Kyrgyz and Russian. It gives 12
January 2022 as the end of the consultation period and 19 January 2022 as
the end of the "consideration" period.

The Justice Ministry website also published on 13 December the draft
Amending Law in both Kyrgyz and Russian, which would amend a series of
other laws that touch on religion. It similarly gives 12 January 2022 as
the end of the consultation period and 19 January 2022 as the end of the
"consideration" period.

On 14 December the Cabinet of Ministers website also published the draft
texts. It said that any comments should be sent to the private email
address of Manas Muratbekov, head of the SCRA's Legal Department.

The one-month period for public comments includes two public holidays – 3
January for New Year and 7 January for Russian Orthodox Christmas.

The Director of the SCRA, Toigonbai Abdykarov, is to be the Cabinet of
Ministers' designated representative when the new Religion Law and the
Amending Law are presented for adoption to Parliament, the Zhogorku Kenesh.

Repeated proposals to replace or revise Religion Law

The current Religion Law was adopted in December 2008 and came into force
in January 2009. Registered religious communities were required to prepare
new applications to re-register by 1 January 2010. However, the SCRA
refused to register many communities
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2013) for the next five or
six years, giving contradictory statements on whether such registration was
necessary.

The Religion Law has been repeatedly amended since 2009. In 2012,
amendments increased the state censorship of religious literature.

More recent amendments in December 2019 and May 2021
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2703) have (at least in
theory) removed the requirement for keneshes (local councils) to approve
lists of founders before a community can apply to the SCRA for
registration, before a community can apply to the SCRA to register a
religious education establishment, or before a community can apply to
register a foreigner it wants to invite to Kyrgyzstan to conduct religious
work.

Since 2009, officials have repeatedly proposed replacing the Religion Law
with a completely new text.

In 2017 a State Commission draft brought to Parliament
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2283) proposed among other
restrictions that: all religious literature be subject to state censorship,
sharing beliefs be banned, and 500 adult citizens in one location would be
required to apply for state registration (and so permission to exist) of a
religious community. Parliament passed the amendments in their first
reading, but they were not presented to Parliament again.

Exercising freedom of religion or belief without permission still to be
banned, punishable

Article 8, Part 2 of the current Religion Law bans the exercise of freedom
of religion or belief without state registration.

Article 20, Part 1 of the December 2021 draft declares: "Carrying out
religious activity in Kyrgyzstan without registration (or re-registration)
with the state organ for religious affairs .. is not allowed, and brings
responsibility under the Violations Code".

Manas Muratbekov, head of the SCRA's Legal Department who prepared the
draft, refused to discuss this requirement with Forum 18.

The December 2021 draft Amending Law would add punishments in the
Violations Code for unapproved exercise of freedom of religion or belief.
Article 142, Part 8 would punish "Carrying out religious activity or using
an object of religious designation or prayer premises without corresponding
registration with the executive state body for religious affairs" with
fines of 75 Financial Indicators (FIs) on individuals (about two weeks'
average wage) and 230 FIs on organisations.

This widens the scope of activity punishable. Article 142, Part 4 of the
Violations Code that came into force on 1 December 2021 punishes "Carrying
out religious activity" with the same fines, with no specific mention of
using premises without state permission.

200 adult founders still required – and they must live in one Region

Article 8, Part 3 of the current Religion Law requires at least 200 adult
citizens permanently living in the country to found a religious
organisation and apply for state registration.

Under Article 11, Part 1 of the December 2021 draft, at least 200
"responsible citizens" (those 18 and over who have not been declared
incapable by a court of deciding for themselves) permanently living in one
Region of the country would be required to found a religious organisation
and apply for state registration.

Manas Muratbekov, head of the SCRA's Legal Department who prepared the
draft, refused to discuss this requirement with Forum 18.

Under Article 12, Part 3, all 200 founders would be required to be
physically present and vote at the founding meeting. The application would
require all 200 founders to have their full names, dates of birth,
citizenship, registered addresses and passport details listed and
notarised.

In a suit brought by Jehovah's Witnesses against the constitutionality of
the then registration requirements, on 4 September 2014 the Constitutional
Chamber of the Supreme Court rejected their contention that a high
threshold of 200 adults required to found a religious organisation violated
the Constitution. "These demands cannot be regarded as a restriction on
grounds of faith," it declared.

Zhanara Askar kyzy, a Protestant Christian and lawyer, also tried to
challenge the requirement for religious organisations to have at least 200
adult citizen founders. She argued that this violated her rights and
violated the Constitution. However, on 16 April 2015, the Constitutional
Chamber of the Supreme Court refused to hear her suit, claiming that it had
already considered the issue in 2014. On 23 June 2015, the Constitutional
Chamber rejected Askar kyzy's appeal against the April 2015 decision.

In her comments on the 2021 draft new Religion Law, the lawyer Askar kyzy
notes that an individual "does not need to be tied to a permanent place of
residence" and questions how a potential founder's place of residence will
be verified.

Askar kyzy also questions how all 200 founders could be present at one
founding meeting, describing the requirement as amounting to a "direct ban"
on registering a religious organisation.

"It is physically impossible to gather more than 200 people at one notary's
office to certify the list of founders with a record of the passport
details of these citizens, as well as the record of the founding meeting on
one day," Askar kyzy insists. "Not one notary would take on such a case,
and if one did agree then that would require an incredible amount of money
for their services." She notes that founders of other legal entities can
give their approval by proxy.

Consequences of refusal to register communities violates human rights

On 14 July 2021 - in a decision (CCPR/C/132/D/2659/2015
(https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CCPR%2fC%2f132%2fD%2f2659%2f2015&Lang=en))
made public on 7 December 2021 - the UN Human Rights Committee found that
registration denials of Jehovah's Witness communities in Kyrgyzstan
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2703) had violated their
rights and ordered redress and compensation to be paid to the applicants.

The Committee also considered the Jehovah's Witnesses' complaint that 200
adults are needed to apply to found a religious community which, the
Committee noted, "is allegedly designed to prevent small religious
organizations from obtaining registration".

The UN Human Rights Committee stated that it notes that "by refusing to
register the authors' religious organization, the State party denied their
rights to jointly manifest their religious beliefs, including the right to
conduct religious meetings and assemblies, to own or use property for
religious purposes, to produce and import religious literature, to receive
donations, to carry out charitable activity and to invite foreign citizens
to participate in religious events".

The Committee considered that "these activities form part of the authors'
right to manifest their beliefs", and noted that the current Religion Law
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2013) makes "'unregistered'
religious activity .. a criminal offence".

"Considering the significant consequences of a refusal of registration,
namely the impossibility to carry out religious activities," the Human
Rights Committee concluded that "refusal to register the authors' religious
organizations" is a limitation on freedom of religion or belief for which
Kyrgyzstan has demonstrated no legally valid reason. "The Committee
therefore concludes that the authors' rights under article 18 (1) of the
Covenant [the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] have
been violated."

A Joint Opinion of the Venice Commission and the OSCE Office for Democratic
Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)
(https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD(2020)002-e)
on Uzbekistan's then-draft Religion Law was published on 12 October 2020.
That Religion Law, which came into force on 6 July 2021
(https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2670), also requires 200
founders resident in a specific place. The Joint Opinion stated that: "any
minimum threshold for registration, should be justified and take into
account the needs of smaller religious and belief communities." Referring
to public associations, the Joint Opinion stated that "it is generally
recommended at the international level to not require more than two members
as a minimum to establish an association." The Joint Opinion also stated
that "It is recommended to .. simply require permanent residence .. and not
in a specific district/city."

The OSCE / Council of Europe Venice Commission Guidelines on the Legal
Personality of Religious or Belief Communities
(https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/9/9/139046.pdf) note that under
international human rights law: "State permission may not be made a
condition for the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief. The
freedom of religion or belief, whether manifested alone or in community
with others, in public or in private, cannot be made subject to prior
registration or other similar procedures, since it belongs to human beings
and communities as rights holders and does not depend on official
authorization."

The Guidelines also note in relation to registration - which must in
international law be voluntary - that "legislation should not make
obtaining legal personality contingent on a religious or belief community
having an excessive minimum number of members".

Examples of a minimum requirement of two persons are given in the
Guidelines, which note that "States .. should be aware of the fact that
provisions requiring a high minimum number of members make the operational
activities of newly established religious communities unnecessarily
difficult."

Legal address requirements an obstacle to registration

Unlike in the current Religion Law, the December 2021 draft would
specifically ban religious communities from using a home, for example the
home of a leader of the community, as their legal address.

Article 23, Part 4 of the December 2021 draft has the effect of requiring a
religious community to give its legal address as "the place where it
permanently conducts religious activity". Part 5 declares: "Not allowed is
the use of residential premises as the place where religious activity is
permanently conducted, nor the giving of the address of residential
premises as the address of the location of the religious organisation."

Manas Muratbekov, head of the SCRA's Legal Department who prepared the
draft, refused to discuss this requirement with Forum 18.

Article 23, Part 5, Point 6 requires a religious community to provide "a
certified copy of the conformity assessment report of the completed
building, structure, or technical passport of the premises in accordance
with the legislation on urban planning and architecture, in which the
religious organisation is located".

Many Protestant Christian, Jehovah's Witness and other communities do not
have their own place of worship and meet for worship regularly in rented
premises. It is not clear if the renting organisations would be prepared to
provide documentation of the buildings where the communities meet and, if
so, whether the SCRA would accept them. The lawyer Askar kyzy argues that
it would be impossible for communities that meet in rented premises to
fulfil this requirement.

Askar kyzy also expresses concern about requiring the legal address to be
the same as the meeting address. She points out that some religious
communities do not have a custom of having a dedicated place of worship.
Among them are Protestant communities who meet in rented venues.

"As in some cases premises are rented for several hours [a week]," Askar
kyzy notes, "finding the religious organisation or its representatives in
case of need at the address where they meet would not be possible." She
argues that separating a religious community's legal address and meeting
address would avoid such problems.

Informing local authorities, informing SCRA

Within five days of receiving registration from the SCRA, a religious
organisation would have to inform the local authority, giving the address
of the organisation and the leader's personal and contact details. Within
five days of receiving confirmation of this from the local authority, the
owner would have to notify the SCRA of this confirmation.

It remains unclear why, if the SCRA has registered a religious community
and it believes that the local authorities need to know, it could not
inform the local authorities itself.

No mandatory re-registration

The State Commission for Religious Affairs (SCRA) lists 3,385 religious
organisations that currently have state registration.

After the adoption of the current Religion Law which came into force in
January 2009, all registered religious communities were required to
re-register. For many years, the SCRA failed to respond to re-registration
applications from large numbers of communities, leaving them in a
vulnerable position.

The December 2021 draft Religion Law includes no requirement for religious
communities which currently have registration to re-register under any new
terms. Article 50, Part 3 of the draft explicitly states that the new Law
would not have retroactive force.

Manas Muratbekov, head of the SCRA's Legal Department who prepared the
draft, refused to discuss with Forum 18 whether officials might require
religious communities to re-register.

"Prayer premises" and "objects of religious designation" to require
registration

The December 2021 draft Religion Law would for the first time require
places of worship to have state registration with the SCRA before religious
communities would be allowed to use them. The draft distinguishes between
"prayer premises" and "objects of religious designation", though it does
not explain why.

Article 32, Part 1 defines "prayer premises" as "premises in a building or
free-standing structure with public access and used exclusively for the
purpose of carrying out prayers". It appears that "prayer premises" refers
to Muslim prayer rooms (namazkhana).

Article 33, Part 1 defines "objects of religious designation" as "a
building, construction, structure or complex of structures used for
religious activities".

To register a place of worship, the individual or organisation that owns it
or has a rental agreement to use it would have to lodge an application
together with documentation confirming ownership or rental of the premises
and documentation confirming that the building meets planning and building
requirements.

Within five days of receiving registration for the premises from the SCRA,
the owner would have to inform the local authority, giving the address of
the premises and the owner's personal and contact details. Within five days
of receiving confirmation of this from the local authority, the owner would
have to notify the SCRA of this confirmation.

Opening prayer premises in blocks of flats, as well as in pre-school and
educational establishments would be banned. Using any places of worship
without state permission would be punishable under the Violations Code.

The proposed new Amending Law would add to the Violations Code Article 142,
Part 8. This would punish "Carrying out religious activities, using an
object of religious designation or prayer premises without appropriate
registration with the authorised state body for religious affairs" with
fines of 75 FIs on individuals (about two weeks' average wage) and 230 FIs
on organisations.

Private religious education to be banned, punishable

The December 2021 draft Religion Law would allow religious communities to
apply to register religious educational establishments, provided they have
at least 200 adult founders who live in one Region of the country and who
would all assemble for a founding meeting in person and would have their
personal and passport details notarised.

Such religious educational establishments could be established "for the
preparation of clergy and necessary religious personnel". It remains
unclear why these are the only purposes for which a registered religious
organisation might establish an educational establishment and whether
individuals or groups of people which are not registered religious
organisations could establish religious educational establishments.

Article 6, Part 4 of the draft Law declares: "Teaching religious
disciplines on an individual basis outside a religious educational
institution is prohibited."

The draft Amending Law would amend the Violations Code. Article 142, Part 1
of the Code that came into force on 1 December 2021 punishes "Violation of
the norms governing the procedure for the provision of religious education"
with fines of 55 Financial Indicators (FIs) on individuals (about 10 days'
average wage) and 170 FIs on organisations.

The Amending Law would replace this provision. The new Article 142, Part 4
would punish "Teaching religious disciplines on an individual basis outside
a religious educational institution" with fines of 55 FIs on individuals
(about 10 days' average wage) and 170 FIs on organisations.

Religious literature distribution to be less punishable

The December 2021 draft Religion Law would remove the ban on distributing
religious publications in public places and going from door to door. It
would retain the ban on distributing such literature in municipal
institutions and would add a ban on such distribution in pre-school or
general educational establishments.

Article 142, Part 3 of the Violations Code that came into force on 1
December 2021 punishes "Distribution of literature, print, audio and video
materials of religious nature in public places, as well as by going round
homes, state or municipal institutions" with fines of 55 FIs on individuals
and 170 FIs on organisations.

The draft Amending Law proposed by the SCRA would renumber that provision
to Article 142, Part 6 and reword it: "Distribution of literature, print,
audio and video materials of religious nature in state or municipal
institutions, as well as in pre-school and general educational
establishments." Fines would remain unchanged of 55 FIs on individuals
(about 10 days' average wage) and 170 FIs on organisations. (END)

For more background information see Forum 18's Kyrgyzstan religious freedom
survey (https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2013)

More reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Kyrgyzstan
(https://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=30)

Forum 18's compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments
(https://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1351)

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