In a surprise move, the regime freed from prison on 8 May all 16 of Turkmenistan's known jailed conscientious objectors in a prisoner amnesty. The 16 – all of them Jehovah's Witnesses – were serving jail terms of between one and four years. They are among the very few prisoners of conscience - including political prisoners - ever to be freed in the regular prisoner amnesties.
However, the regime appears to have made no moves towards offering a civilian alternative to those unable to perform compulsory military service on grounds of conscience. The regime has rejected repeated United Nations (UN) calls to introduce a genuinely civilian alternative service.
The 16 freed conscientious objectors were included in the amnesty at the initiative of the authorities and no bribes were paid, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Nor were the young men pressured to swear any oaths or submit to any other obligation to gain release. All have to report to the police within three days of arriving home. "Most likely, further conditions will be explained to them there," Jehovah's Witnesses added. All those released were in good health.
Of the 16 amnestied and freed conscientious objector prisoners, 20-year-old Bahtiyar Atahanov was serving the longest sentence. A court in Tejen jailed him for four years in July 2019. The most recently sentenced of those amnestied and freed was 21-year-old Rasul Rozbayev. A court in the northern Dashoguz Region jailed him for two years in March 2021. Ten of the 16 were serving second sentences on the same charges. All had offered to do an alternative civilian service, but the regime does not allow this (see full list of amnestied and freed prisoners below).
Courts handed down 32 known convictions and jailings of conscientious objectors since Turkmenistan resumed such jailings in January 2018. All of them were Jehovah's Witnesses.
No new criminal cases against Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors have been handed to Prosecutor's Offices, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18.
No alternative to compulsory military service
Turkmenistan offers no alternative to its compulsory military service. Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is generally two years. Article 58 of the 2016 Constitution describes defence as a "sacred duty" of everyone and states that military service is compulsory for men.
Young men who refuse military service on grounds of conscience generally face prosecution under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1. This punishes refusal to serve in the armed forces in peacetime with a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment or two years' corrective labour.
Criminal Code Article 219, Part 2 punishes refusal to serve in the armed forces in peacetime "by means of inflicting injury to oneself, or by simulation of illness, by means of forgery of documents, or other fraudulent ways". Punishment is a jail term of one to four years. The first known use of Article 219, Part 2 to punish a conscientious objector was the case of Azat Ashirov, while Serdar Dovletov's case was the second (see below).
From 2014, courts punished conscientious objectors with corrective labour or suspended prison terms, rather than imprisonment. However, jailings resumed in January 2018.
Courts jailed 12 conscientious objectors in 2018, two of them for two years and 10 for one year. Courts jailed 7 conscientious objectors in 2019, one of them for four years, one for three years, one for two years and four for one year. Courts jailed 5 conscientious objectors in 2020, four of them for two years and one for one year. Courts jailed 8 conscientious objectors in 2021, seven of them for two years and one for one year.
Calls for alternative civilian service ignored
Turkmenistan has ignored repeated international calls to introduce an alternative to compulsory military service. In March 2017, the UN Human Rights Committee adopted Concluding Observations on Turkmenistan's human rights record (CCPR/C/TKM/CO/2).
The Committee stated: "The State party should revise its legislation without undue delay with a view to clearly recognizing the right to conscientious objection to military service, provide for alternative service of a civilian nature outside the military sphere and not under military command for conscientious objectors, and halt all prosecutions of individuals who refuse to perform military service on grounds of conscience and release those who are currently serving prison sentences."
The UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly called for an alternative civilian service to be introduced. It has issued 13 Decisions in favour of 15 conscientious objectors from Turkmenistan, all of them Jehovah's Witnesses. In its most recent such Decision, published on 17 September 2019 (CCPR/C/126/D/2302/2013), it ruled that the right to freedom of religion or belief of former conscientious objectors Juma Nazarov, Yadgarbek Sharipov, and Atamurad Suvhanov had been violated by their jailing.
All three men also complained of "inhuman and degrading treatment" after their arrests. The Human Rights Committee stressed that Turkmenistan is under an obligation to make reparation to Nazarov, Sharipov and Suvhanov for the violations of their rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including to "expunge their criminal records and to provide them with adequate compensation. The State party is also under an obligation to avoid similar violations of the Covenant in the future".
The Committee's September 2019 Decision urged Turkmenistan to meets its obligations to avoid similar violations such as by changing the law, "for instance, by providing the possibility of exemption from service or alternative service of a civilian nature".
Another conscientious objector former prisoner, Arslan Begenchov, lodged a case to the UN Human Rights Committee on 20 June 2018 and is awaiting a decision, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. When sentenced in Charjew to one year's imprisonment in January 2018, Begenchov was the first conscientious objector to be sentenced to prison since 2014.
Ignoring UN special procedures, and Human Rights Committee
On 10 December 2020, four UN human rights Special Procedures wrote to Turkmenistan's government (AL TKM 2/2020) expressing "serious concern at the conviction and detention of Messrs. Sanjarbek Saburov and Eldor Saburov for their refusal, based on their religious conscience and opinion, to perform military service".
The Saburov brothers were each jailed in August 2020 for two years. "We also express our serious concern at the fact that the S. A. Niyazov District Court of the Dashoguz Region has yet to share with the family of the two brothers copies of its [August] 2020 decision", the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues wrote.
The December 2020 Communication also expressed concern that the Saburov brothers were convicted and punished a second time, "which is a violation of the rule against double jeopardy, or non bis in idem, enshrined in article 14(7) ["Right to equality before courts and tribunals and to fair trial"] of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights".
"We deeply regret the criminalization of conscientious objection," the UN human rights Special Procedures wrote. Turkmenistan "must provide meaningful alternative service, that is, it must be compatible with the reasons for the conscientious objection, of a non-combatant or civilian character, in the public interest and must not be punitive of character".
The UN Special Procedures asked the government to comment on the cases and explain why the Saburov brothers were convicted for a second time. "Please provide detailed information on the measures undertaken to ensure that persons, including those who are members of religious or belief minorities, who refuse to perform military service based on their conscience, religion or belief are not criminally prosecuted and punished, and that their right to freedom of religion or belief is respected and protected," they also asked.
The regime did not reply to the UN within the requested 60 days. However, in the regime's report to the Human Rights Committee submitted on 27 March 2020, the regime did not explain why young men with conscientious objections to military service are jailed, and why they cannot perform an alternative civilian service. It merely repeated the regime's claim that defending the country "is the sacred duty of every citizen".
Why no alternative civilian service?
Forum 18 was unable to find out why the authorities will not introduce an alternative civilian service and why conscientious objectors who are willing to perform such an alternative service, like the 15 Jehovah's Witness young men, continue to be jailed.
On 10 May 2021, the telephone at the office of the regime-appointed Human Rights Ombudsperson Yazdursun Gurbannazarova went unanswered. The telephone of Merettagan Taganov, chair of the Human Rights and Freedoms Committee of the newly-created upper chamber of Parliament, the Halk Maslahaty, as well as of Yusupguly Eshshayev, the regime-appointed Chair of the Mejlis (lower chamber of Parliament) Human Rights Committee, similarly went unanswered each time Forum 18 called the same day.
A Foreign Ministry official refused to explain why the regime is not willing to introduce a civilian alternative service in line with repeated UN recommendations, and why young men continue to be imprisoned. Ata (who would not give his last name) of the Foreign Ministry's International Organisations Department claimed to Forum 18 in August 2020 that Turkmenistan "is dealing with these bodies, including the UN".
Ata said he did not agree that Turkmenistan is failing to implement UN human rights recommendations. "Our Department is dealing with difficult issues, including with the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, and the OSCE," he claimed. "We are trying to do our best."
Foreign Ministry officials have refused to talk to Forum 18 on this issue since.
List of known amnestied and freed conscientious objectors
Sixteen conscientious objectors to compulsory military service (listed below in chronological order of sentence) – all of them Jehovah's Witnesses – are known to have been amnestied and freed on 8 May 2021. Thirteen were serving prison sentences under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1 ("Rejecting call-up to military service"), Ashirov and Dovletov under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 2, and Atahanov under Criminal Code Article 344, Part 2. Ten were serving second sentences.
1) Bahtiyar Amirjanovich Atahanov; born 17 June 2000; sentenced 15 July 2019 Tejen City Court under Criminal Code Article 344, Part 2; appeal rejected 20 August 2019 Ahal Regional Court; four years' ordinary regime labour camp.
2) Azat Gurbanmuhammedovich Ashirov, born 7 January 1999; sentenced 31 July 2019 Abadan District Court under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 2; appeal rejected 3 September 2019 Ashgabat City Court; two years' ordinary regime labour camp.
3) Serdar Nurmuhammedovich Dovletov, born 2 December 1993; sentenced 12 November 2019 Bayramali City Court under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 2; appealed rejected 3 December 2019 Mary Regional Court; three years' ordinary regime labour camp.
4) Kamiljan Ergashovich Ergashov, born 27 June 2001; sentenced 13 January 2020 Niyazov District Court under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; appeal rejected 4 February 2020 Dashoguz Regional Court; two years' ordinary regime labour camp.
5) Vepa Bahromovich Matyakubov, born 19 August 1998; sentenced 17 February 2020 Boldumsaz District Court under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; appeal rejected 17 March 2020 Dashoguz Regional Court; two years' ordinary regime labour camp (second sentence).
6) Sanjarbek Davranbekovich Saburov, born 12 August 1994; sentenced 6 August 2020 Niyazov District Court, under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; appeal rejected 1 September 2020 Dashoguz Regional Court; two years' ordinary regime labour camp (second sentence).
7) Eldor Davranbekovich Saburov, born 9 April 1999; sentenced 6 August 2020 Niyazov District Court, under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; appeal rejected 1 September 2020 Dashoguz Regional Court; two years' ordinary regime labour camp (second sentence).
8) Myrat Baymukhammedovich Orazgeldiyev, born 6 May 2002; sentenced 3 September 2020 Vekilbazar District Court, under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; appeal rejected 29 September 2020 Mary Regional Court; one year's ordinary regime labour camp.
9) Ruslan Khadynyaz oglu Artykmuradov; born 24 May 2000; sentenced 11 January 2021 Sayat District Court, under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; chose not to appeal; two years' strict regime labour camp (second sentence).
10) Azamatjan Narkulyevich Narkulyev, born 9 November 2000; sentenced 18 January 2021 Danev District Court, under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; chose not to appeal; two years' strict regime labour camp (second sentence).
11) Maksat Jumadurdiyevich Jumadurdiyev, born 15 May 2000; sentenced 18 January 2021 Danev District Court, under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; chose not to appeal; two years' strict regime labour camp (second sentence).
12) Artur Aydogdyyevich Yangibayev, born 22 April 1997; sentenced 18 January 2021 Danev District Court, under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; chose not to appeal; two years' ordinary regime labour camp (second sentence).
13) Veniamin Muslimovich Genjiyev, born 12 May 2000; sentenced 19 January 2021 Danev District Court, under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; appeal lodged to Lebap Regional Court; two years' strict regime labour camp (second sentence).
14) Ikhlosbek Valijon oglu Rozmetov, born 26 November 1997; sentenced 19 January 2021 Gurbansoltan eje District Court, under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; two years' strict regime labour camp (second sentence).
15) Nazar Palvanovich Alliyev, born 12 December 2000; sentenced 10 February 2021 Hojambaz District Court, under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; appeal rejected 9 March 2021 Lebap Regional Court; one year's ordinary regime labour camp.
16) Rasul Ruslanovich Rozbayev, born 14 August 1999; sentenced 16 March 2021 Niyazov District Court, under Criminal Code Article 219, Part 1; intends to appeal to Dashoguz Regional Court; two years' ordinary regime labour camp (second sentence).