On May 2, 2017, Judge Talgat Syrlybayev sentenced Teymur Akhmedov to five years in prison for allegedly “inciting religious discord” and promoting the “superiority of citizens on grounds of their religion.” The judge also added a further restriction to his imprisonment—a three-year ban on Mr. Akhmedov’s “ideological religious activity.” On June 20, the Astana City Court rejected his appeal despite strong evidence of his innocence.

Baseless 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, then 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 pretrial detention. He was beaten by prison authorities who tried to force him to admit his guilt. Meanwhile, Mr. Akhmedov, aged 61, is in urgent need of medical attention for a bleeding tumor. 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. Following the June 20, 2017, dismissal of his appeal by the Astana City Court, his lawyers are pursuing further appeals.

On October 2, 2017, the WGAD published its decision that the government of Kazakhstan had wrongly imprisoned Mr. Akhmedov and should release him immediately. The WGAD found that his actions in sharing his religious beliefs “were entirely peaceful and within the limits of his freedom of religion,” and that the government’s punishment of him revealed religious discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses. The day after the WGAD decision was made public, Mr. Akhmedov’s lawyers filed an appeal to the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan, requesting that it implement the WGAD decision, acquit him, and order his immediate release. However, by its decision dated December 4, 2017, the Supreme Court refused to consider the appeal, leaving the May 2, 2017, decision in force.

Time Line

  1. October 2, 2017

    WGAD publishes its decision that Teymur Akhmedov was wrongly imprisoned and should be released immediately.

  2. June 20, 2017

    Appeal is rejected by court in Astana.

  3. May 2, 2017

    Convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

  4. March 13, 2017

    Case is forwarded to court.

  5. March 1, 2017

    Motion to terminate is denied.

  6. February 20, 2017

    Motion to terminate criminal proceedings is submitted to court.

  7. January 30, 2017

    Astana City Court dismisses the appeal.

  8. January 18, 2017

    Teymur Akhmedov is arrested and sentenced to two months’ pretrial detention.