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MARCH 2, 2015

Religious Freedom at a Crossroads in Kyrgyzstan

Religious freedom advanced in Kyrgyzstan when, on September 4, 2014, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared portions of the 2008 Religion Law to be unconstitutional. This opened the way for Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain religious registration in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan. *

Despite this ruling, the State Committee on Religious Affairs (SCRA) still refuses to grant legal registration to the Witnesses in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan. The SCRA contends that until parliament introduces amendments to the 2008 Religion Law, the law remains in force as written and therefore precludes Jehovah’s Witnesses from obtaining legal status. As a result, the same religious activity that is registered and carried on peacefully in the north meets with discrimination and restriction in the south of Kyrgyzstan. *

Arrested for Unregistered Religious Activity

On June 30, 2014, in Naryn, a city in southeastern Kyrgyzstan, 46-year-old Zhyldyz Zhumalieva was using a portion of her personal time to share her religious beliefs with neighbors. Authorities in Naryn arrested her and convicted her of sharing her religious beliefs with her neighbors as a member of an unregistered local religious organization. * Since Kyrgyzstan’s independence, this is the first time that a Witness has been prosecuted for engaging in religious activity.

On appeal, the Naryn District Court heard the case against Ms. Zhumalieva on August 5, 2014. The judges asked many questions, seeking to understand Jehovah’s Witnesses and the message they share with their neighbors. After considering the evidence, the judges suspended the case pending the release of the above-mentioned decision from the Constitutional Chamber.

Afterward, the Naryn District Court again took up the case of Ms. Zhumalieva. The court found no administrative violation and observed that all citizens have the constitutional right to manifest their religious beliefs. Reasoning on the Constitutional Chamber’s decision, the court noted that Jehovah’s Witnesses are registered in Kyrgyzstan nationally. It canceled the trial court’s conviction, but the prosecutor appealed, claiming that the Constitutional Chamber’s decision was unrelated to the criminal case. On December 24, 2014, the Supreme Court rejected his appeal, leaving in force the Naryn District Court’s acquittal of Ms. Zhumalieva and thereby upholding her right to share her religious beliefs with her neighbors.

Justice Despite Fabricated Charges in Osh

In 2013, Oksana Koriakina and her mother, Nadezhda Sergienko, were placed under house arrest for alleged crimes committed while they were sharing their faith with others. Officials in Osh used these fabricated charges as a pretext to claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses are engaged in “illegal religious activity.” The officials contend that without registration of a local religious organization, Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot in any way publicly manifest their religious beliefs.

The trial court in Osh acquitted both women of criminal charges. In his October 7, 2014, ruling, the judge concluded that the criminal investigators had made major errors in their investigation and that they had prosecuted Ms. Koriakina and Ms. Sergienko merely because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The prosecutor in Osh appealed to cancel the trial court decision. He motioned that the case be sent back to the criminal investigators for them to “repair” the errors and that he might bring Ms. Koriakina and Ms. Sergienko to trial a second time. When the appeal court rejected the prosecutor’s motion, he appealed to the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan. The Court has set March 3, 2015, for the hearing, and the Witnesses hope that its ruling will again uphold justice.

Will Kyrgyzstan Advance or Restrict Religious Freedom?

One of Jehovah’s Witnesses who was present at a hearing of Ms. Zhumalieva commented: “Since 1998, local officials have pressured us because we don’t have legal registration in Naryn. Now, as a result of these decisions from the Supreme Court, we hope that we will finally be granted registration.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses look forward to receiving registration in Naryn, Osh, and elsewhere in southern Kyrgyzstan so that they may continue their peaceful religious worship without harassment. If Kyrgyzstan follows its high court, it will have advanced the religious freedom of its citizens.

^ par. 2 See the article “Kyrgyzstan’s Highest Court Upholds Religious Freedom for Jehovah’s Witnesses” for an account of the September 4, 2014, decision of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.

^ par. 3 The Witnesses have national registration, and they also have local registration in the northern regions of the country. However, authorities have repeatedly denied local registration in the southern regions.

^ par. 5 Article 395(2) of the Administrative Code of the Kyrgyz Republic prohibits violation of the “rules for organizing and holding religious meetings, processions, and other religious ceremonies.”