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NOVEMBER 5, 2014

Kyrgyzstan’s Highest Court Upholds Religious Freedom for Jehovah’s Witnesses

Kyrgyzstan’s Highest Court Upholds Religious Freedom for Jehovah’s Witnesses

September 4, 2014, marked a momentous day for Jehovah’s Witnesses and religious freedom in Kyrgyzstan. On that day the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan declared portions of the 2008 Religion Law * to be unconstitutional. The decision established that the Witnesses have the right to carry out their religious activity freely in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan, where they have been repeatedly denied legal status for the past four years.

Jehovah’s Witnesses obtained national registration in Kyrgyzstan in 1998, and throughout the country, they enjoyed a measure of freedom to worship. However, since the 2008 Religion Law came into force, police have repeatedly raided the religious meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan, claiming that the Witnesses’ activity in these regions is “illegal” because they do not have locally registered religious organizations. At the same time, the State Committee on Religious Affairs (SCRA) misapplied some restrictive provisions of the 2008 Religion Law to block the Witnesses’ efforts to obtain registration in these regions. The September 4 decision removed those roadblocks.

A Significant Legal Development

The 2008 Religion Law prohibits “the activity and functioning of a religious organization” without registration (Article 8(2)). The SCRA interpreted this provision as a means to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from carrying out their religious activity in the dozens of towns and cities in Kyrgyzstan where they do not have locally registered religious organizations. The same law required that a notarized list of the 200 founding members of a religious organization must first be submitted to and approved by the local city council (Article 10(2)) before the organization could apply for registration with the SCRA. This put Jehovah’s Witnesses in a difficult position—in order to meet for worship legally, they were told by the SCRA that they needed to have local registration, but they could not register because the local city councils would not approve their lists of founding members. This gave the SCRA and local authorities a pretext to harass the Witnesses because they could not meet the registration requirements. Because of these hardships, the Witnesses filed an application with the Constitutional Chamber challenging these provisions of the law.

In its decision, the Constitutional Chamber stated that “all religious associations are equal before the law and any person or group of people of a particular religion should not be treated more favorably in comparison with members of another religion.” The Court declared that Article 10(2)—requiring that the list of founding members of a religious organization be approved by a local city council—was unconstitutional. The Court also concluded that Article 8(2) of the law had been “misunderstood.” It stated that the right to freedom of religion guarantees that a religious organization may freely carry out its religious activity in any region of the country that it chooses to specify in its founding document. The 1998 founding document of the Religious Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Kyrgyz Republic already specifies that its activity covers the entire country. This means that Jehovah’s Witnesses are now free to carry out their religious activity in all regions of Kyrgyzstan without hindrance.

Decision Brings Relief to Victims of Discrimination

The September 4 decision was welcome news for Jehovah’s Witnesses in southern Kyrgyzstan. This was especially so for Oksana Koriakina and her mother, Nadezhda Sergienko, living in the city of Osh. They had both been placed under house arrest since March 2013 for alleged crimes committed while they were sharing their faith with others. Despite clear evidence proving their innocence, Oksana and Nadezhda were charged with swindling money from three elderly women.

The trial took place in the Osh City Court in September 2014, and on October 7, 2014, the trial court fully acquitted both women of the criminal charges and ruled that they are entitled to full compensation for their wrongful prosecution, detention, and house arrest. The trial court acknowledged that the two Witnesses were victims of religious prejudice and discrimination and that they had been targeted based on the erroneous claim that the religious activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Osh was illegal because the Witnesses do not have a locally registered religious organization. In their closing arguments, Oksana and Nadezhda relied on the September 4 Constitutional Chamber decision, which legalizes the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Osh and throughout Kyrgyzstan.

Oksana Koriakina and Nadezhda Sergienko

Efforts to Support International Human Rights

Having acceded to the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Kyrgyzstan has made an international commitment to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms—freedom of religion or belief, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression—for its citizens. By its recent rulings upholding religious freedom, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan has firmly supported human rights and fundamental freedoms. The nearly 5,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kyrgyzstan cherish the religious freedoms accorded to them and greatly appreciate the State-appointed institutions that defend and uphold fundamental freedoms for the enjoyment of all.

^ The full name of the law is “Law of the Kyrgyz Republic on Freedom of Religion and Religious Organizations in the Kyrgyz Republic.”