Mild-mannered pensioner Aleksandr Kharlamov does not look like a typical rabble-rouser – but this bespectacled sexagenerarian stands at the center of a furor over freedom of conscience in Kazakhstan.
Throughout the post-Soviet era, President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration has cast Kazakhstan as a bastion of religious tolerance. Yet, Kharlamov, a staunch atheist, is accused of stoking religious tensions in a Kafkaesque case which could see him jailed for seven years.
Kharlamov has already spent six months behind bars, some of it in a psychiatric ward, broadening the controversy over religious freedom into a row over the alleged misuse of psychiatry.
Kharlamov denies stoking religious discord, he told EurasiaNet.org in an interview in his hometown of Ridder in the Altay Mountains in northeastern Kazakhstan.