TURKMENISTAN: Conscientious objector convicted as criminal
A Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector in Turkmenistan, Zafar Abdullaev, has been given a two-year suspended sentence for refusing to do compulsory military service because of his religious beliefs, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Abdullaev's criminal conviction comes despite calls from the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief for the state to stop treating conscientious objection as a criminal offence and introduce a genuinely civilian alternative service. However, Turkmenistan's most senior human rights official, Shirin Akhmedova, has totally rejected these appeals. Instead, she pointed to the country's Constitution, which describes compulsory military service as a "sacred duty". In addition to his criminal record, it is unknown if Abdullaev faces other restrictions during his sentence, such as on his freedom of movement. There are two other known conscientious objectors currently serving sentences in Turkmenistan. Both, Begench Shakhmuradov and Vladimir Golosenko, are Jehovah's Witnesses.
Calls for state to allow conscientious objection
International bodies have repeatedly recommended that Turkmenistan introduce an alternative civilian service for those who cannot serve in the armed forces for reasons of conscience.
"I am concerned that conscientious objection is a criminal offence and that no alternative civilian service is offered," United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir, declared in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat] on 10 September 2008 at the conclusion of her visit to the country. She stressed that the right to perform an alternative, non-military service is part of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion guaranteed in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In General Comment 22 on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee has stated that conscientious objection to military service is a legitimate part of everyone's right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
The introduction of an alternative, civilian service was also one of the recommendations to Turkmenistan as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country's human rights record by the UN Human Rights Council in December 2008.
State insists it will not allow conscientious objection
However, responding to these recommendations at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 19 March 2009, Shirin Akhmedova, Director of the government's National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, rejected the recommendation. She pointed to Article 41 of Turkmenistan's Constitution, as revised by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in September 2008, which states: "The defence of Turkmenistan is the sacred duty of every citizen. For male citizens of Turkmenistan a universal military obligation has been established."
Akhmedova claimed that those who have religious reasons for objecting can serve in medical or construction units within the army. She failed to explain how this would meet the objections of those who, for religious or other conscientious reasons, cannot serve at all in any structure linked to the military. She also failed to explain whether those who object to bearing arms on non-religious conscientious grounds are also eligible to perform non-military duties within the armed forces.
Forum 18 was unable to reach Akhmedova at her Institute on 17 April. The telephones of Charygeldy Seryaev, head of the government's Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs, and of Nurmukhamed Gurbanov, a deputy head, went unanswered each time Forum 18 called on 17 April. Forum 18 was also unable to reach Aygozel Hezretova, head of the Legal Information Centre at the Ministry of Justice.
One human rights defender from Ashgabad, who preferred not to be named, told Forum 18 on 17 April that the issue of an alternative service has not been publicly raised within the country. "The army takes everyone, whether or not they are even medically fit to serve," the human rights defender pointed out. "The army is a source of income for higher officials. I don't believe they'll introduce an alternative service."
Forum 18 had learnt in 2008 that the government was considering introducing some form of alternative service. However, it was unclear then whether any definite proposals were being considered, or how genuine this alternative service apparently being considered would be (see F18News 31 July 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1166).
However, Akhmedova's comments to the UN Human Rights Council appear to indicate that the Turkmen authorities are proposing no change to the criminalisation of conscientious objection to compulsory military service.
The sentencing of Abdullaev
Abdullaev, who was born in 1987, was called up into the armed forces when he reached the age of 18, but refused to serve because of his religious convictions. Although he initially faced pressure, eventually his case was forgotten. However, on 1 March this year, investigator A. Khamraev began summoning him to the town Prosecutor's Office for questioning, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18.
Abdullaev was accused of violating Article 219 Part 1 of the Criminal Code, which punishes refusal to serve in the armed forces with a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment. He was tried by Dashoguz City Court on 8 April and given the suspended sentence. He is currently living at home.
It remains unclear what conditions have been attached to Abdullaev's suspended sentence. Other conscientious objectors serving suspended sentences have had restrictions placed on their movement, have to be back at home each evening at 8 pm and cannot leave their home town or city without specific permission. The sentence also means that Abdullaev will have a criminal record which will be notified to any future employer.
Jehovah's Witness young men have repeatedly insisted to Forum 18 that they are ready to do alternative non-military service, but Turkmenistan offers no civilian alternative to those who cannot serve in the military on grounds of conscience. The lack of any genuine alternative service means that any Jehovah's Witness young men could be arrested at any time.
Other known conscientious objectors
Still serving sentences for refusing military service are fellow Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors Begench Shakhmuradov and Vladimir Golosenko.
Shakhmuradov, who is from the capital Ashgabad, was given a two-year suspended sentence in September 2007. Sources who preferred not to be identified told Forum 18 he is living at home and is able to work in a private business. His sentence is due to expire in September 2009.
Shakhmuradov insisted to Forum 18 in the wake of his sentence that he believes it is wrong to punish those who cannot serve in the armed forces because of their religious convictions. He particularly objected that some – like himself – have been sentenced twice for the same "offence" (see F18News 9 October 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1031).
Golosenko, who is from the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi [Türkmenbashy, formerly Krasnovodsk], was called up when he reached the age of 18. He too was found guilty under Article 219 Part 1 and sentenced on 12 February 2008 to two years' forced labour. He is not in prison, but 20 percent of his wages go to the state (see F18News 31 July 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1166). (END)
For a personal commentary by a Protestant within Turkmenistan, on the fiction - despite government claims - of religious freedom in the country, and how religious communities and the international community should respond to this, see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=728.
For a personal commentary by another Turkmen Protestant, arguing that "without freedom to meet for worship it is impossible to claim that we have freedom of religion or belief," see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1128.
More reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Turkmenistan can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=32.
For more background information see Forum 18's religious freedom survey of Turkmenistan at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1167.
A survey of the religious freedom decline in the eastern part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) area is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=806, and of religious intolerance in Central Asia is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=815.
A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=turkme.
31 March 2009
Police in Uzbekistan "decided to invite" a Russian Orthodox priest to take part in a raid on a group of Baptists, a police officer has told Forum 18 News Service. Father Igor Skorik of Almalyk's Assumption of the Mother of God Church pressured Baptists not to attend unregistered worship and to come to his church instead, church members told Forum 18. The use of a cleric of one religious community to pressure members of another in cooperation with the authorities is a disturbing new development. The raid on a private home was led by Major Urazali Kholbekov, from the Tashkent Regional Criminal Investigation and Counter-Terrorism Department, who apparently arranged for Fr Skorik to take part in the raid. Fr Igor claimed he did not violate the law by taking part. "I was not there to check up on the Baptists but to just advise them," he insisted. Local Baptists point out that the raid and Fr Skorik's participation violates both Uzbek law and international human rights law. Church members were arrested, and police claimed Baptists were "at risk of danger in the case of a terrorist act which could be carried out by people in their home".
5 December 2008
Uzbekistan is continuing to restrict the numbers of haj pilgrims to 5,000 people, or one fifth of those who could potentially go, Forum 18 News Service has found. This seriously limits the number of Muslims who can perform this obligation of their faith. All pilgrims need approval from local authorities, the NSS secret police and other national authorities, and are strictly controlled – including isolation from foreigners – on pilgrimage. Forum 18 has been told of an unwritten state instruction that pilgrims must be aged over 45. The head of a regional state Religious Affairs Committee denied this, illustrating his denial by saying that his region had sent "a 32 year old man" on pilgrimage. However, he did not answer when Forum 18 asked why there were very few young people on the pilgrimage. The state also charges pilgrims many times the minimum monthly wage to make the haj. An Uzbek human rights defender, Surat Ikramov, pointed out to Forum 18 that this plus the bribes demanded "makes it impossible for the majority to go on haj."
25 November 2008
Bilbil Kulyyeva was threatened with incarceration in a psychiatric hospital if she did not stop complaining about punishments imposed for following her faith as a Jehovah's Witness, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Officials threatened to put her two small children in a children's home and deport the other two. In June, police threatened another female Jehovah's Witness with rape. She was held overnight and freed the following day only after she had been forced to clean the police station and water plants outside. Four Jehovah's Witnesses were beaten and fined in May after refusing police and MSS secret police pressure to declare: "I am a Muslim." Police and the MSS secret police often work closely with local imams to intimidate Jehovah's Witnesses as well as Protestant Christians. The Jehovah's Witnesses lodged a formal registration application in August, but have had no response. Forum 18 could find no official prepared to explain why Jehovah's Witnesses and members of other faiths face harassment.