By Nathaniel Hurd,
The case of Teymur Akhmedov, a 61-year-old Jehovah’s Witness in Kazakhstan, illustrates the life-threatening consequences that can result from attacks on religious freedom.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom in Kazakhstan
Becoming an OSCE participating State includes the voluntary accession to all OSCE commitments, including those related to freedom of religion. From the founding Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the language is clear: “The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion… the participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”
Yet of the 10 countries currently designated by the U.S. State Department as “Countries of Particular Concern” with regard to religious freedom, three of them – Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan – are in the OSCE region.
Since the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requirements came into effect, the U.S. Secretary of State has annually reviewed and reported annually on the status of religious freedom in foreign countries. When there is evidence the government of that country has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom in that country,” the Secretary is supposed to designate the country as a CPC.
Although Kazakhstan has not been designated as a CPC and its constitution includes provisions providing for religious freedom, in its International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, the State Department reported “the government continued to arrest, detain, and imprison members of religious groups, criminalize speech ‘inciting religious discord,’ question congregation members about their choice of faith, punish individuals for ‘illegal missionary activity,’ and label ‘nontraditional’ religious groups as ‘destructive sects’ in the media.”
This has led the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to classify Kazakhstan as one of three OSCE participating States – along with Azerbaijan and Turkey – on its “Tier 2” list, which identifies countries where religious freedom violations do not meet the criteria for the State Department’s CPC designation, but that still need ongoing scrutiny. Kazakhstan has been on the Tier 2 list every year since 2013.
USCIRF notes in its 2017 annual report, “The country’s restrictive 2011 religion law bans unregistered religious activity and is enforced through police raids, detentions, fines, and the closing of religious institutions. Increasingly, terrorism and religious extremism laws with multiyear prison sentences are deployed against religious nonconformity and political opposition, blurring the line between violent extremism and peaceful dissent.”
The Case of Teymur Akhmedov
A retired bus driver, Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov is a married father of three. In 2016, he was approached by several men who identified themselves as students who were interested in the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They invited Akhmedov to an apartment to discuss his faith and later visited his home.
Acting on behalf of the National Security Committee (a Kazakh intelligence agency), the men secretly recorded their discussions. In January 2017, Akhmedov was arrested and charged with violating Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code (Article 174) regarding “inciting religious hatred.”
The presiding judge concurred with the charges and also accused Akhmedov of “inciting religious discord” and promoting the “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority of citizens on grounds of their religion.” He sentenced Akhmedov to five years in a labor camp and banned him from “ideological religious activity.” His appeal was denied in June 2017.
Since his pre-trial detention began in January, authorities have denied Akhmedov access to cancer treatments at a hospital. He also says he has been tortured in detention. His family and his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses are concerned that his health will rapidly deteriorate. Jehovah’s Witnesses have asked for him to be immediately released and for the Kazakh government to stop using the Criminal Code and legislation to violate religious freedom in the name of combating extremism.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan
There are 18,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan, more than in any other central Asian country. Over the years, the Kazakh government has fined more than 60 Jehovah’s Witnesses for engaging in missionary activities without registration.
In May 2017, a government inspection of Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Almaty alleged non-compliance with Kazakh law regarding requirements for the number of security cameras at public venues, although the government had approved – and Jehovah’s Witnesses had implemented – a camera plan for the headquarters earlier that year.
In June, a judge suspended all activities at the headquarters and imposed fines. At an appeals hearing on August 3, the judge amended the sentence, ordering Jehovah’s Witnesses to refrain from holding religious meetings in the headquarters, but permitting all other activities at the headquarters to continue. This has forced 14 congregations to meet elsewhere.