Washington, D.C.: Freedom Now welcomes the attached letter by 13 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to the President of Turkmenistan urging him to release members of the Jehovah’s Witness faith who have been imprisoned in his country for refusing to serve in the military because of their religion.

In the letter, the MEPs note that there are currently eight imprisoned Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors in Turkmenistan and urge President Berdimuhamedov to “facilitate their immediate release.” The letter reiterates a call by the UN Human Rights Committee on the Turkmen government to stop prosecuting conscientious objectors and release those individuals imprisoned. The UN Committee is the authoritative body tasked with interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an international treaty that protects individual rights of religious belief and practice. Turkmenistan, as a state party, is duty bound to uphold its citizens’ rights under the ICCPR. The letter also highlights a statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief following her visit to the capitol Ashgabat in 2008, in which she expressed concern regarding the criminalization of conscientious objection in the country.

The Government of Turkmenistan requires compulsory military service to be performed by all male citizens; women too can be subject to conscription. Jehovah’s Witnesses are prohibited by their faith from performing any military service. The Turkmen government provides no civilian alternative service in cases of religious conscientious objection. As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Turkmenistan face up to two years in prison for complying with their religious obligations in opposition to Turkmen law. In some cases, Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors have been re-imprisoned for continuing to refuse military service after their release.

“Religious persecution in Turkmenistan is a systemic problem that does not receive enough attention,” said Freedom Now Executive Director Freedom Now. “But with this letter, these 13 MEPs have placed the wrongful imprisonment of religious conscientious objectors in Turkmenistan under the international spotlight. The Turkmen government must make alternative civilian service available to conscientious objectors and stop imprisoning them for following the tenants of their faith.”