Turkmenistan: New wave of imprisonment of conscientious objectors

The last months saw a new wave of imprisonment of conscientious objectors in Turkmenistan, after about two years of relative calm. Forum 18-News reported on 31 August that a fifth Jehovah's Witnesses conscientious objector is now about to be prosecuted. The case of Begench Shakhmuradov is following the cases of Bayram Ashirgeldiev (TKM14925), Aleksandr Zuev (TKM14928) and Nuryagdy Gairov (TKM14926), reported in a co-alert from 24 July 2007, and Suleiman Udaev, who had been sentenced 18 months' imprisonment in 7 August 2007, according to report by Forum 18-News.

Turkmen legislation does not provide for the right to refuse military service and a law on a civilian alternative does not seem probable during the next few years.

COs, mostly members of the Jehovah's Witnesses and similar religious groups, face several years' imprisonment under criminal law and often serve their sentences in labour colonies under harsh conditions. In a lot of cases, release has been denied if the prisoners refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the president on grounds of conscience.

However, in April 2005, all four known conscientious objectors in Turkmen prisons at that time were released, following a presidential decree from 16 April 2005, which named the four, though significantly the decree did not reveal that all four had been sentenced for rejecting compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience.

Since then, Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors enjoyed a relative calm, albeit periodically threatened with call-up for military service. The US State Department also reported two cases of detention in 2006: "Two Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors were released from detention in December 2005 and in January. In contrast to previous years, they were not tried, although they were subjected to physical and psychological harassment and were forced to sign a confession. One Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector was detained and kept in the psychiatric ward of a military hospital in June, but he was later released with no further attempts to enlist him."

This changed with the detention of two Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors on 14 June 2007 - and was followed by more detentions and sentences since.

In light of these developments, the formation of a new interagency state commission empowered to "implement international obligations" for the protection of human rights, established by presidential decree of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov issued on 25 August 2007, can only be seen as whitewash.

While Turkmenistan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it does not seem to have reported to the Human Rights Committee yet, and the Human Rights Committee does not seem to have discussed the human rights situation in the country in the absence of a state report.

However, if the new wave of repression again conscientious objectors in Turkmenistan continues, it will be high time to put bthis issue on the agenda.

Sources: US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Turkmenistan, 6 March 2007, Forum 18 News Service, 15 August 2007 and 31 August 2007, co-alert, 12 July 2007 and 24 July 2007