Bahrom and Gulnora Kholmatov
Bakhrom Kholmatov, with his wife Gulnora (World Watch Monitor)

A Tajik Protestant church leader serving a three-year sentence for “singing extremist songs in church and so inciting religious hatred” has been moved to a prison 350km from his home and placed in solitary confinement.

Bakhrom Kholmatov, 42, was sentenced in July under the Tajik Criminal Code Article 189 (“inciting national, racial, local or religious hatred or dissension, humiliation of national dignity, as well as propaganda of the superiority of citizens based on their religion, national, racial, or local origin, if committed in public or using the mass media”).

Regional news agency Forum 18 reports that, after his transfer to a prison in the city of Yavan, south of the capital Dushanbe, Tajik authorities said it was “normal procedure” to place convicts in solitary confinement for 15 days before they are released into the main prison.

“We do not know when exactly he was put in solitary confinement and when he will be moved to his general regime prison,” fellow Protestants who wished to remain nameless told Forum 18. “He will be allowed to receive parcels and visits from his family”. They added that he has his Bible with him and that he has been allowed to read it.

Kholmatov, who is married with three children, was arrested on unspecified charges during a 10 April raid on the Good News of Grace Protestant Church, in the northern city of Khujand, by the National Security Committee (NSC, known also as the secret police), who brought the case to trial.

Bahrom Kholmatov
Bakhrom Kholmatov during his trial (World Watch Monitor)

Officers interrogated and beat up other church members at the time of the arrest, and removed Christian songbooks which they described as “extremist”.

The NSC, alongside other law enforcement agencies and the State Committee for Religious Affairs, also raided affiliated churches in northern Tajikistan’s Sogd region in February, and, in March, officials closed down a church in Konibodom – 50 miles east of Khujand – after interrogating and torturing church members. NSC officers also pressured employers into dismissing members of Konibodom’s congregation from their jobs.

The extremist charges were brought against Kholmatov after the February raids, when the NSC claimed songs based on Bible passages, such as “Our fight is not against flesh and blood”, and “God’s army is marching”, are extremist and call on people to overthrow the government.

A book seized from the church – ‘More than a carpenter’ by American Protestant author Josh McDowell – is also claimed to be extremist, as judged by religious experts working for the NSC, said Forum 18.

Khujand City Administration’s chief religious affairs official, Mukhsin Mirkamolov, said that the court that tried Kholmatov “was not prejudiced against him as a Christian… All religions are equal and free in Tajikistan. He violated the law and was therefore tried”.

A member of one of the churches said: “Church meetings continue, but how can things be normal after all that has happened?”