In January 2018, Arslan Begenjov and Kerven Kakabayev were sentenced to one-year prison terms on the charge of evading military service. The two young men are Jehovah’s Witnesses and had refused enlistment in the military based on their religious beliefs. Although they were willing to perform alternative civilian service, the Turkmenistan government still does not recognize the fundamental right of conscientious objection and offers no alternative to military service.

Arrest, Conviction, and Imprisonment

Authorities arrested Mr. Begenjov on January 2 and placed him in a temporary detention facility until his court hearing. On January 17, the court found him guilty of evading military service and sentenced him to one year in prison. Mr. Begenjov has appealed his unjust sentence.

Mr. Kakabayev was also arrested in January and was unjustly sentenced to one year in prison on January 29. During his trial, the court did not allow him to present favorable decisions of the UN Human Rights Committee that supported his case. Unfortunately for Mr. Kakabayev, a court may never hear his appeal. Prison officials withheld the appeal documents that his attorneys had prepared for him. As a result, he could not sign the documents within ten days of his sentencing, as required by law.

Mr. Kakabayev is being punished for the second time for conscientiously objecting to military service. In December 2014, authorities sentenced him to two years of correctional labor, meaning that he was required to pay 20 percent of his salary to the State budget during that period.

“Continued Failure to Recognize the Right to Conscientious Objection”

The Turkmenistan government claims to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens. Yet, it refuses to recognize the right of conscientious objection to military service despite calls to comply with international standards.

In 2015 and 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee issued decisions against Turkmenistan in response to ten complaints filed by Witness conscientious objectors. In these decisions, the Committee reprimanded Turkmenistan for persecuting and imprisoning Witnesses for conscientious objection. In April 2017 the Committee repeated its concern about Turkmenistan’s “continued failure to recognize the right to conscientious objection to compulsory military service and the repeated prosecution and imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing to perform compulsory military service.” It called on Turkmenistan to provide for alternative civilian service, to halt prosecution of conscientious objectors, and to release those currently in prison for refusing to perform military service.

In the past several years, the government has made some changes in its treatment of those who object to military service for reasons of conscience. Since December 2014, instead of imprisoning Witness conscientious objectors, it has either withheld 20 percent of their salary for one to two years as a penalty (as Mr. Kakabayev had experienced in 2014) or, in some cases, imposed a conditional sentence. * In February 2015 it released the last Witness imprisoned for conscientious objection. Unfortunately, in the recent cases of Mr. Begenjov and Mr. Kakabayev, the government of Turkmenistan reverted to a previous harsher stance, rather than advancing toward clear recognition of the right to conscientious objection.

Imprisonment of Witnesses Extends Beyond Conscientious Objectors

In addition to the recent imprisonment of Mr. Begenjov and Mr. Kakabayev, authorities continue to keep Bahram Hemdemov in prison for exercising his right to worship. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, he was arrested and imprisoned for holding a religious meeting in his home in Turkmenabad. This father of four has remained in prison since 2015, even though the president of Turkmenistan has issued numerous amnesties in the past two years. The State has amnestied thousands of prisoners but consistently ignores pleas for Mr. Hemdemov’s release.

Jehovah’s Witnesses long for relief for their fellow believers in Turkmenistan. They hope that Turkmenistan will soon show respect for the rights of freedom of religion and conscience and will correct the existing injustices.

^ par. 10 A conditional sentence imposes some form of probation in lieu of serving a prison sentence.