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NOVEMBER 24, 2015

Turkmenistan Sentences Bahram Hemdemov to Four-Year Prison Term for Religious Activity

On May 19, 2015, a Turkmenistan court sentenced 52-year-old Bahram Hemdemov, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, to four years in prison. Police had arrested Mr. Hemdemov two months earlier for holding a peaceful religious meeting in his home in Turkmenabad. He is currently being held in a labor camp in the town of Seydi.

Raid on Religious Meeting

Police raided the religious meeting held in Mr. Hemdemov’s home on March 14, 2015. They mistreated and harassed all 38 in attendance, charging them with illegal religious activity. Police placed Mr. Hemdemov in pretrial detention, and they repeatedly interrogated and beat him. Authorities seized personal possessions, including a car, a computer, and cash.

The Serdarabad District Court later fined 30 of the Witnesses and sentenced 8 of them to 15-day prison terms. Mr. Hemdemov’s son, Serdar, received two 15-day prison terms, during which authorities kept him in isolation, interrogated him, and severely beat and tortured him. Another Witness, Emirdzhan Dzhumnazarov, was also sentenced to two 15-day prison terms, suffered beatings, and was threatened with torture.

On May 19, 2015, Judge Gochmurad Charyev of the Lebap Regional Court sentenced Bahram Hemdemov to four years in prison on fabricated charges of “inciting religious hatred.” He was transferred from Turkmenabad to the Seydi labor camp on June 10, 2015.

The prison warden refused to allow anyone to visit Mr. Hemdemov in prison—including close relatives—until the time limit for appealing the verdict had passed. The warden thus prevented Mr. Hemdemov or a representative from appealing the conviction. Since his imprisonment, officers have pressured him to confess to fabricated violations, subjected him to hard physical labor, and severely beaten him in retaliation for judicial complaints filed by his wife on his behalf.

Gulzira Hemdemova, Bahram’s wife, appealed to the Supreme Court of Turkmenistan. Though there was no evidence of a crime, the deputy chairman of the Supreme Court found no basis to grant the appeal. In early August, Mr. Hemdemov’s attorney filed a supervisory appeal. On August 25, 2015, the Supreme Court denied the appeal because Mr. Hemdemov “propagates the religious beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

“Authorities in Turkmenistan have multiplied injustice. . . . Inexplicably, the Supreme Court of Turkmenistan failed to undo the injustice done to Bahram Hemdemov.”—Philip Brumley, general counsel.

Campaign of Mistreatment in Turkmenabad

By the end of 2014, authorities in Turkmenistan had shown signs of tolerance toward the religious activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In September 2014, authorities released Bibi Rahmanova from prison following her arrest in August 2014 on fabricated charges. Eight other Witnesses who were in prison for practicing their faith were granted presidential amnesty and released in October 2014. Despite these positive developments, some local authorities continue to manifest religious intolerance by arresting, detaining, and mistreating some of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Turkmenabad.

On February 6, 2015, police arrested four of Jehovah’s Witnesses—Viktor Yarygin, Rustam Nazarov, Charygeldy Dzhumaev, and Jamilya Adylova. They were charged with “minor hooliganism” for possessing religious literature. Agents of the Ministry of State Security beat three of the Witnesses, including Ms. Adylova. Officers beat Mr. Dzhumaev so severely that he lost consciousness several times. The Turkmenabad City Court fined Mr. Yarygin, sentenced Mr. Nazarov to 30 days in prison, and sentenced both Mr. Dzhumaev and Ms. Adylova to a total of 45 days each * in prison. The four Witnesses have filed formal complaints with the Presidential Administration and the General Prosecutor’s Office in Ashgabad.

Two weeks later, police raided the home of Zeynep Husaynova in search of “illegal” religious literature. They seized her personal religious literature and threatened to prosecute and imprison her for 15 days.

Another Witness, Dovlet Kandymov, was charged with illegal religious activity and detained for three consecutive 15-day sentences. While he was in custody, officers repeatedly beat him because he refused to testify against Bahram Hemdemov, his fellow believer.

Will Turkmenistan Honor Its Guarantees of Freedom of Religion?

Since the spring of 2015, authorities in Turkmenabad have not harassed Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, Bahram Hemdemov remains in prison merely for practicing his religion.

Bahram with his wife, Gulzira, and one of their sons

Peaceful religious activity, including the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses, should have legal protection in Turkmenistan. Its constitution guarantees the right to “practice any religion alone or in association with others” and “the right to freedom of conviction and the free expression of those convictions.” Furthermore, Turkmenistan has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which also guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

Philip Brumley, general counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses, commented:

Authorities in Turkmenistan have multiplied injustice at every level. Turkmenabad police officers acted illegally and brutally in raiding a peaceful religious gathering. Judicial authorities in Turkmenabad endorsed these illegal actions. Inexplicably, the Supreme Court of Turkmenistan failed to undo the injustice done to Bahram Hemdemov.

Jehovah’s Witnesses respectfully appeal to the government of Turkmenistan to register them legally, allow peaceful religious worship, and put an end to the kind of mistreatment that occurred in Turkmenabad earlier this year. We ask the national government to restore Mr. Bahram Hemdemov to his family.

Jehovah’s Witnesses gratefully acknowledge that the government of Turkmenistan has previously freed prisoners to correct injustices. In the same way, the government should consider an early release for Bahram Hemdemov and allow for greater religious tolerance.

^ Under the Turkmenistan Administrative Code, the maximum sentence for “minor hooliganism” is 15 days in prison. However, the court sentenced Mr. Dzhumaev and Ms. Adylova to three separate terms of 15 days’ imprisonment.