Belarus: Baptists Fined for Singing Hymns

Three Baptists have been fined for taking part in a street outreach in the town of Lepel in the north-eastern region of Vitebsk and a further six were given official warnings, Keston News Service has learnt in a statement from local Baptists. At their 6 June trial, two other Baptists were acquitted. Reached by telephone in Lepel on 11 June, the judge in the case, Nikolai Kozlovsky, refused to explain why the Baptists had been put on trial. "We don't give out information by telephone," he told Keston, before putting down the telephone. The town's police chief, Konstantin Borovik, reached by telephone the same day, also refused to explain. "The Baptists violated the law," was all he would tell Keston.

The eleven Baptists - whose denomination refuses to register with the authorities in any of the post-Soviet republics where it operates - were preaching and singing hymns on the streets when the police intervened. "For testifying to people about God (without a tent, under the open sky), they had several times been taken to the police station," the 7 June statement from the local Baptists reported. "This was done not without the knowledge of the local administration."

The Baptists claimed that the deputy head of the Lepel administration, Vera Zakrevskaya, had announced that she would not allow even one sanctioned sermon to be heard in her town. Keston tried to reach Zakrevskaya at her office on 10 and 11 June, but the telephone went unanswered.

With identical charge sheets accusing them of "singing religious songs", all eleven were charged under Article 167 (1) of the administrative code, which punishes participation in unsanctioned demonstrations. "The only witnesses at the trial were officials of the police and criminal investigation department," the Baptists reported.

Three of the men, Korolev (an invalid), P. Burshtein and A. Burshtein, were fined 200,000 roubles each (some 113 US Dollars, 120 Euros or 77 British Pounds each), while six women were warned. The Baptists called on fellow-Baptists to pray and appeal for these sentences to be revoked.

However, in a surprise move, the court acquitted two of the men, V. Burshtein and Yu. Fedoruk. The Baptists reported that the charge sheets against them were "completely false" and that the judge had announced during the hearing that four telegrams appealing on their behalf had just arrived at the court.

Belarus maintains tight controls on all activity on the streets, requiring permits for any public meetings or events, including those of a religious or political nature. Article 167 (1) of the administrative code is frequently used against political protesters, though on occasion it has also been used against street preachers. Generally, the authorities refuse permission for demonstrations to take place in centrally located urban areas.