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Turkmenistan: Two years in prison for two Jehovah’s Witnesses objecting to military service

– JW Int’l Headquarters (09.08.2020) – On 6 August, a Turkmen court sentenced siblings Eldor, 21, and Sanjarbek, 25, Saburov to two years in prison for their conscientious objection to military service. The court refused the  brothers’ request to appeal. This is the second time both were convicted for their Christian beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

What do international experts think?

Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division

“Authorities in Turkmenistan should immediately withdraw the criminal charges against Eldor and Sanjarbek Saburov. The government should, in line with recommendations by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, offer alternative civilian service to people who for reasons of conscience cannot serve in the military. They should also release the other Jehovah’s Witnesses in custody for exercising their right to freedom of conscience.” denberr@hrw.org

Dr. Edward Lemon, Kennan Institute Fellow, expert on Central Asian affairs

“Turkmenistan is a closed state with one of the poorest human rights records in the world. Like other countries in Central Asia, Turkmenistan has a conscription-based military. Each year, teams of soldiers roam the streets forcibly press-ganging young people into serving in the military, a practice known as oblava. The law obligates each male citizen between 18 and 27 years of age to serve unless they have justifiable reasons not to. Conscientious objection is not viewed as a justifiable reason and those who avoid military service can be jailed for two years. Prison conditions are inhumane and torture is widely used in the justice system.” elemen@dmgs.org

Willy Fautre, Human Rights Without Frontiers, director

“Human Rights Without Frontiers is appalled by the Turkmen court’s decision to sentence two peaceful Jehovah’s Witnesses to two years of imprisonment simply for objecting to military service on the ground of their religious beliefs. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has already issued 13 decisions in favor of 15 other Jehovah’s Witnesses sentenced to prison for the same reason in the last few years. Human Rights Without Frontiers calls upon the authorities of Turkmenistan to urgently bring its legislation on this issue in line with international standards and in the meantime to adopt a moratorium on the sentencing of conscientious objectors. w.fautre@hrwf.org

UN Human Rights Committee (HRC)

Of the 13 decisions in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Turkmenistan, the most recent is CCPR/C/126/D/2302/2013, dated November 5, 2019. More information on previous UN HRC decisions is available upon request.

European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)

  • ECHR has punished other lands, such as Armenia, for not having ACS
  • Bayatyan v. Armenia (2011) (see §124-128), the ECHR ruled that Armenia violated article 9 of the convention (ICCPR)
  • The ICCPR (which incidentally Turkmenistan ratified) protects the right of conscientious objectors to refuse to perform military service
  • As a result of the ECHR ruling, Armenia is now among countries like Taiwan that are models for how ACS benefits the State as well as the conscientious objectors


Saburov Brothers’ Case History

In 2016, Sanjarbek respectfully refused to be drafted into the army. Subsequently, he was convicted and sentenced to two years of probation.

The following year Eldor also refused to participate in military service. He was sentenced to two years of correctional labor with 20 percent of his wages garnished by the State.

According to Turkmen law, conscientious objectors can be criminally charged a second time if they continue to refuse military service. In April 2020, the military recruiting office again summoned the brothers to enlist. Both refused to be drafted. They were criminally prosecuted, which resulted in their imprisonment.

Beyond the emotional toll, imprisonment will cause acute hardship for their parents. Their father suffers from chronic back pain, which impairs his ability to work. The brothers support the family by growing cotton. Since both brothers are imprisoned, their parents will no longer have the financial support they need. Instead, the parents will now have to care for their sons’ needs in prison.

The Saburov brothers are willing to contribute to society and would be please to perform alternative civilian service (ACS). However, Turkmenistan does not offer ACS,only futile imprisonment.

Jarrod Lopes, spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, states: “It’s a travesty for these young men to be imprisoned simply for their Christian beliefs. Including the Saburov brothers, there are ten young Jehovah’s Witnesses in prison in Turkmenistan for conscientious objection. Earlier this year, Turkmenistan marked the 25th anniversary of its permanent international neutrality. Yet, Turkmen authorities continue to severely punish its citizens for taking a neutral stand. International human rights bodies have repeatedly called on Turkmen leaders to stop imprisoning conscientious objectors and provide them an alternative to compulsory military service. We hope soon Turkmenistan will amend it’s law to meet international standards and end the needless imprisonment of peaceful young men.”

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