As of the end of 2019, at least nine young Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned in Turkmenistan for conscientious objection to compulsory military service.
According to a Jehovah’s Witnesses report, nine young men between the ages of 18 and 26 are currently detained at labor camps in Turkmenistan. Mekan Annayev (19), Azamatyan Narkuliyev (19), Eziz Atabayev (20), Saparmuradov Muhammetali (23), Bahtiyar Atahanov (19), Azat Ashirov (20), David Petrosov (18), and Selim Taganov (18) are all reportedly in detention at the Seydi Labor Camp LB-E/12. A ninth man, 26-year-old Serdar Dovletov, is in a detention center in Mary after being sentenced to three years for “fraudulently evading military service.”
Turkmenistan’s record on religious freedom has led the United States to label it a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) repeatedly since 2014. Although the country’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, in reality the Turkmen government frequently violates this stipulation. High barriers to registration, prohibition of unregistered activities, and bans on worship in private homes work to ensure that smaller religious groups have great difficulty operating in the country. The latest report, in April 2019, from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that “Non-Muslim communities led by ethnic Turkmen have proven especially difficult to register.”
In 2019, Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded numerous incidents of interference including police beatings, intimidation, harassment, and interrogation of members. For example, in February 2019 a village official in Lebap Region’s Carjew District said a complaint had been received against a male Witness. The man was escorted to a police station where he was interrogated. His home was then searched and he was taken back to the police station where, a Jehovah’s Witnesses report says, the police then “ threatened to push a pole with the national flag attached down his throat in an attempt to force him to kiss the flag.”
In many of the cases, the individual Witnesses were “talking to others about their beliefs.”
There has been, however, some degree of improvement. Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, told The Diplomat that “During the last five years, prison administration have not pressured our boys, nor have they expressed hostility against them. This is an improvement from the past and something we are very grateful for.”
Lopes confirmed that the detained men are in good health and their parents are able to visit and deliver groceries and clothing at least once a month.
“In Turkmenistan, in prison and outside, conditions have improved from the past when aggression against Jehovah’s Witnesses most often included harsh physical abuse. Additionally, some local authorities have recently allowed us greater relative freedom in that they have not been interfering with our worship,” Lopes said. “We are thankful for these improved conditions and hope this positive trend continues to eventually allow our fellow believers the legal protection to freely practice their faith.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses face difficulties in much of Central Asia. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, some Jehovah’s Witness communities have been able to register with the state, but others have not. In Tajikistan in September 2019, a Jehovah’s Witness was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in jail on charges of inciting religious hatred.
Turkmenistan’s general opacity and the lack of access to information from and about the state and its policies are complicating factors.
The matter of conscientious objection gives the state an excuse to arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses, who across the board refuse military service. With regard to Turkmenistan, in particular, the UN Human Rights Committee has issued a number of decisions against Ashgabat with regard to individual Witnesses. In 10 decisions handed down in 2015 and 2016, the committee obligated Turkmenistan to provide alternative civilian service options.
Turkmenistan, which holds to a state policy of neutrality, has never been engaged in any kind of military conflict since gaining independence in 1991, but Ashgabat nevertheless compels young men to serve in the military for at least two years.
In a 2019 decision on a 2013 petition by three Witnesses who alleged Turkmenistan had violated their rights, the UN HRC notes that when Turkmenistan became a party in 1997 to the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which sets out complaint mechanisms for individuals against states they claim have violated their rights, it recognized the committee’s “competence” to determine if a violation had occurred and committed to provide remedy if the committee determined so. On the first page of the decision, the “procedural issue” is noted as “State party’s failure to cooperate.”
Despite these ongoing issues, and the U.S. State Department’s recent re-designation of Turkmenistan as a CPC, Ashgabt has evaded any kind of punitive sanctions due to its alleged importance to U.S. national interests.