On January 18, 2017, agents of Kazakhstan’s National Security Commission arrested Teymur Akhmedov, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Astana, accusing him of “inciting religious discord” and “advocating [religious] superiority.” Mr. Akhmedov, aged 60 and suffering from a bleeding tumor (suspected cancer), was sentenced to pretrial detention and is being held at a detention facility in Astana. If convicted, he faces five to ten years of imprisonment.
Grounds for Criminal Charges
The basis for the false charges against Mr. Akhmedov stems from discussions he had in 2016 with adult “Bible students” feigning interest in Jehovah’s Witnesses. During these peaceful discussions over a period of seven months, he used Bible texts to support his personal views on various religious topics. Unbeknownst to Mr. Akhmedov, the discussions were secretly recorded and used against him to allege violation of Article 174(2) of Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code. That article bans “incitement of . . . religious hatred” resulting in “insult to the . . . religious feelings of citizens” and prohibits “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of citizens on grounds of their religion.”
However, Mr. Akhmedov maintains that he did not violate the law. Rather, his expressions of religious faith and belief are protected by Articles 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantee “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and “the right to freedom of expression.” Previously, the UN Human Rights Committee (Committee), which monitors violations of the ICCPR, drew attention to Kazakhstan’s “broadly formulated definitions of crimes” in misapplying Article 174 to individuals who exercise their freedom of religion and belief. In a report dated August 9, 2016, the Committee urged Kazakhstan to “guarantee the effective exercise of freedom of religion and belief and freedom to manifest a religion or belief in practice. It should consider bringing article 22 of its Constitution into line with the Covenant and revise all relevant laws and practices with a view to removing all restrictions that go beyond the narrowly construed restrictions permitted under article 18 of the Covenant.”
Regarding the “broadly formulated definitions of crimes,” in a 2014 report, Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt, the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief recommended that Kazakhstan replace “overly broad definitions of offences concerning religious discord and extremism” with “clear and narrow definitions.” Otherwise, the law would “negatively impact on freedom of religion or belief.”
Unjust Imprisonment of Teymur Akhmedov
On January 20, 2017, the Saryarka District Court No. 2 in Astana sentenced Mr. Akhmedov to two months’ pretrial detention. He was beaten by prison authorities who tried to force him to admit his guilt. Meanwhile, he is in urgent need of medical attention and is having difficulty walking. His lawyers filed complaints with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and with the UN special rapporteurs on freedom of religion and belief and on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
The Astana City Court dismissed an appeal for his release from pretrial detention and rejected a motion to terminate the criminal proceedings. On March 13, 2017, the City Prosecutor’s Office forwarded the criminal case of Mr. Akhmedov to the Saryarka District Court No. 2 in Astana for trial. In a preliminary hearing on March 27, 2017, the judge denied all motions by the defense, including the motion to change Mr. Akhmedov’s detention to house arrest for the duration of the trial. The court has scheduled the hearing for April 6.
March 13, 2017
Case is forwarded to court.
March 1, 2017
Motion to terminate is denied.
February 20, 2017
Motion to terminate criminal proceedings is submitted to court.
January 30, 2017
Astana City Court dismisses the appeal.
January 18, 2017
Teymur Akhmedov is arrested and sentenced to two months’ pretrial detention.