Kazakhstan President Signs Anti-Extremism Bill Despite Criticisms

Kazakhstan's president signed a contentious anti-extremism bill into law Monday despite protests by both foreign and domestic human rights groups that say the legislation could be used to restrict religious and civil freedoms.

The bill, approved by Parliament earlier this month, aims to prevent religious, political and other forms of extremism in the oil-rich Central Asian country, said the office of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. It names political parties and media among potential sources of extremism and also gives the city court of the capital, Astana, the authority to designate a group as extremist.

Sources say the bill also expands law enforcement agencies' and prosecutors' rights to use surveillance and to suspend organizations suspected of extremism.

"I'm very concerned that the president signed these laws despite the fierce criticism of the drafts by both foreign and domestic human rights activists," Almaty Helsinki Committee President Ninel Fokina told the Norway-based Forum 18 News Service.

Forum 18, which monitors religious persecution in Communist and former Soviet states, reported that the law on countering extremist activity fails to give a clear definition of extremism. According to article 1 of the law, extremism is defined as "the organization and/or the carrying out of actions by a person, group of people or organization in the name of organizations that are formally recognized as extremist," the agency reported.

“Thus the term extremism, defined with the help of the adjective derived from the same root, can be understood from the law only subjectively," Forum 18 reported. "Since the definition of extremism is vague, in theory the state could use it against any religious association."

“The new law can be used by the state to combat religious organizations it does not like,” said Fokina.

Last month, the Voice of the Martyrs reported that the increasing pressure on unregistered Kazakh Christians might possibly have been related to the amendments to the anti-extremism bill, which was adopted by Kazahkstan’s upper house of parliament in December.

Although no Islamic militant attacks have been reported in Kazakhstan, which has a large non-Muslim population, its president recently warned that radical religious groups were stepping up activity there, and urged tougher security measures.

Nazarbayev has been accused of tightening his control over the past few years.