MARCH 17, 2016
In four recent decisions, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that the government of Turkmenistan wrongly punished men who conscientiously object to military service. * It also determined that the harsh conditions of imprisonment violated other rights guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Committee’s decisions obligate Turkmenistan to remedy its violations of international human rights law.
One Resolve Results in Two Convictions
In March 2015, the Committee reviewed the case of Zafar Abdullayev, a Turkmen national who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The authorities twice convicted him for conscientious objection. When Mr. Abdullayev came to trial in April 2009, he testified before the Dashoguz City Court that through a study of the Bible, he resolved not to take up weapons, learn war, or otherwise support military activity. He also testified that he was willing to perform alternative civilian service. However, the court convicted him to a 24-month conditional sentence * for “evasion of conscription.”
Within 11 months of completing his sentence, Mr. Abdullayev was before the same court in response to another military service call-up. His resolve remained the same. The court sentenced him to 24 months in prison.
The Committee concluded that punishing Mr. Abdullayev twice for refusing military service violated the guarantee that “no one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted.” (See ICCPR Article 14, paragraph 7.) More fundamentally, the Committee concluded that both convictions were in breach of “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”—See ICCPR Article 18, paragraph 1.
“The right to conscientious objection to military service inheres in the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It entitles any individual to an exemption from compulsory military service if such service cannot be reconciled with that individual’s religion or beliefs.”—UN Human Rights Committee
Life in Prison
Immediately upon his arrival at the Seydi LB-E/12 prison, the prison administration placed Mr. Abdullayev in isolation for ten days. While he was there, prison guards beat him and subjected him to other forms of ill-treatment.
Between 2010 and 2011, three other Witness men, Ahmet Hudaybergenov, Mahmud Hudaybergenov, and Sunnet Japparow, were also imprisoned for their conscientious objection to military service. They reported a similar brutal initiation to the Seydi prison and suffered repeated beatings throughout their detention.
The four Witnesses gave similar accounts of prison conditions. Approximately 40 inmates were crowded into cells that lacked basic hygiene and were provided no place to sit but the concrete floor. At nighttime, they had only dirty blankets that were insufficient for the prisoners.
In October 2015, the Committee ruled on the cases of Messrs. Hudaybergenov, Hudaybergenov, and Japparow. Similar to its decision concerning Mr. Abdullayev, the Committee determined that the treatment to which authorities subjected the men violated the guarantee that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (See ICCPR Article 7.) The Committee also concluded that the deplorable living conditions violated the right of detainees to be treated “with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”—See ICCPR Article 10.
Obligations to Remedy Human Rights Violations
The UN Human Rights Committee acknowledged that Turkmenistan’s law imposes conscription on male citizens. However, the Committee maintains that the ICCPR guarantees an exemption from compulsory military service if the refusal derives from genuinely held beliefs. A conviction and sentence punishing refusal on these grounds is incompatible with the fundamental right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
The Committee’s decisions obligate the government of Turkmenistan to adopt “legislative measures guaranteeing the right to conscientious objection,” to investigate thoroughly claims of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” and to prosecute anyone found responsible for ill-treatment. The Committee also requires the government to make full reparation to the men whose rights it violated, including appropriate compensation, and to clear their criminal records of conviction for conscientious objection.
Further Progress Needed
The government of Turkmenistan has made progress in dealing with conscientious objectors. In February 2015, it released the last Witness imprisoned for exercising this right.
However, Turkmenistan continues to hold other prisoners of conscience. Bahram Hemdemov, a family man and one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, remains in prison. Authorities took him into custody when police raided the worship services he hosted in his home on March 14, 2015. A court later condemned him to a four-year prison sentence for his religious activity. Mr. Hemdemov now endures the mistreatment and deplorable living conditions of the notorious Seydi labor camp.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and all Turkmen citizens look forward to seeing the government fully meet its international commitments to respect human rights, including the fundamental right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
^ par. 2 See UN Human Rights Committee Communications: No. 2218/2012, Zafar Abdullayev v. Turkmenistan, 25 March 2015 (CCPR/C/113/D/2218/2012); No. 2221/2012, Mahmud Hudaybergenov v. Turkmenistan, 29 October 2015 (CCPR/C/115/D/2221/2012); No. 2222/2012, Ahmet Hudaybergenov v. Turkmenistan, 29 October 2015 (CCPR/C/115/D/2222/2012); No. 2223/2012, Sunnet Japparow v. Turkmenistan, 29 October 2015 (CCPR/C/115/D/2223/2012).
^ par. 4 A conditional sentence imposes some form of probation to conditionally defer or substitute for a sentence depriving a person of liberty. In the case of Mr. Abdullayev’s first conviction, he submitted to regular monitoring by the police and did not serve a prison term.