JULY 4, 2017
In ten of its recent decisions, the UN Human Rights Committee (Committee) called upon the government of Turkmenistan to honor its commitments to protect the human rights of its citizens. * The decisions, released in 2015 and 2016, stated that the government must stop punishing conscientious objectors and that it must comply with the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkmenistan is a party.
Witnesses Seek a Remedy
The Committee’s decisions were based on the complaints filed in September 2012 by ten Witness men who were punished for their conscientious objection to military service. Nine of the men had been imprisoned under harsh conditions and reported being beaten and subjected to degrading treatment. They also suffered extreme temperatures in filthy and overcrowded cells and were exposed to infectious disease.
Each of the Committee’s decisions concluded that Turkmenistan had violated the conscientious objectors’ “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” In the case of the nine men who suffered imprisonment, the Committee said that Turkmenistan had not “treated [them] with humanity and with respect” and that it had “subjected [them] to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
The Committee stated that in order to remedy the violations, the government of Turkmenistan must expunge the Witnesses’ criminal records, provide adequate compensation to them, and revise its legislation to ensure the “effective guarantee of the right to conscientious objection.” The Committee also directed the government to investigate impartially and thoroughly the reports of mistreatment and to prosecute any persons found responsible.
In 2013, an additional five Witness men filed complaints with the Committee for the punishment they suffered as conscientious objectors. Their attorneys expect that the forthcoming decisions will follow the pattern of the first ten.
Severe Mistreatment of Navruz Nasyrlayev
One of the Committee’s decisions, released on July 15, 2016, involved Navruz Nasyrlayev. When he was first called up for military service in April 2009 at the age of 18, he explained to the authorities that his conscience does not permit him to accept military service. However, he stated that he was willing to perform alternative civilian service. He was later convicted of military evasion and sentenced to two years in the LB-E/12 prison in Seydi. While there, he was periodically confined to a punishment cell and severely beaten by masked guards.
In January 2012, one month after his release, Mr. Nasyrlayev was again called up for military service. He repeated that he was willing to perform alternative civilian service but was convicted and sentenced under the same charge to another two years in “a strict regime prison” where conditions are described as “deplorable.” As before, he was severely beaten by prison guards and was forced to perform degrading work.
Mr. Nasyrlayev’s family members suffered as well. Shortly after the Committee sent his complaint to the government of Turkmenistan for response, police officers raided the family home in Dashoguz and severely mistreated his family members and their guests—apparently in retaliation for the complaint.
Although Mr. Nasyrlayev was released from prison in May 2014, he still suffers the effects of his imprisonment. The Committee noted that he suffered severe mistreatment and that he was twice convicted and punished for “the same constant resolve grounded in reasons of conscience.” The Committee concluded: “[Mr. Nasyrlayev’s] refusal to be drafted for compulsory military service derives from his religious beliefs . . . , [and his] subsequent conviction and sentence amounted to an infringement of his freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
Will Turkmenistan Improve Its Treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
In 2012, in an earlier report on human rights in Turkmenistan, the Committee urged the government to “halt all prosecutions of individuals who refuse to perform military service on grounds of conscience and release those individuals who are currently serving prison sentences.” The government of Turkmenistan responded in part by releasing in February 2015 the last Witness imprisoned for conscientious objection. Since that time, no Witnesses have been sentenced to prison for conscientious objection to military service.
However, by prosecuting and punishing conscientious objectors, the Turkmenistan government continues to violate its international commitments to protect human rights.
Since late 2014, the government has sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses who are conscientious objectors to correctional labor. This form of punishment requires these individuals to pay 20 percent of their salary to the State budget for a period of from one to two years. Currently, two Witnesses are subject to correctional labor.
In other cases, officials subject conscientious objectors to severe pressure in an effort to force them to compromise their sincerely held beliefs.
For example, on June 16, 2016, the local sheriff and two representatives of the Military Commissariat went to the home of Artur Yangibayev, a Witness who had submitted a petition requesting alternative civilian service. The officers took him to the prosecutor’s office, where they subjected him to such severe psychological pressure that he was compelled to write a letter retracting his earlier petition. Later, Mr. Yangibayev submitted a complaint about the coercion, and after three weeks in detention, he was released with a two-year conditional detention. *
Other Unresolved Human Rights Violations
Apart from mistreating conscientious objectors, Turkmenistan also restricts and punishes religious activity. A January 2017 report issued by the UN Committee Against Torture appealed to the government of Turkmenistan to “ensure that impartial investigations are opened promptly into . . . the alleged torture in detention of Bahram Hemdemov, a Jehovah’s Witness, in May 2015 [and] the arrest, severe beating and involuntary detention in a drug rehabilitation centre of Mansur Masharipov, a Jehovah’s Witness, in July 2014.” Mr. Masharipov has since been released after serving a one-year prison sentence. Both Mr. Hemdemov, who was convicted of alleged illegal religious activity, and Mr. Masharipov, who was imprisoned on a fabricated charge because of his religious activity, are innocent of wrongdoing.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Turkmenistan hope that the government will soon take steps to resolve these issues in favor of freedom of religion and conscience. In doing so, it will show respect for the men who have taken a conscientious stand and will demonstrate good faith efforts to remedy its human rights record.
^ par. 2 International law recognizes conscientious objection to military service as a fundamental human right, and most countries make provision for it in their domestic law. However, Turkmenistan—along with Azerbaijan, Eritrea, Singapore, South Korea, and Turkey—not only refuses to recognize this right but also continues to prosecute those among Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse military service for reasons of conscience.
^ par. 18 A conditional sentence imposes some form of probation to conditionally defer or substitute for a sentence depriving a person of liberty. Mr. Yangibayev submits to regular monitoring by the police and has not served a prison term.