A district court in Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken Province seems to have had a hard time distinguishing Islam from Christianity. The court recently sentenced two Jehovah’s Witnesses to seven-year prison terms for the possession of banned radical Islamic media materials.
Iskandar Kambarov, 18, and Jonibek Nosirov, 22, were convicted of possessing DVDs associated with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an underground radical Islamic group that advocates the non-violent overthrow of Central Asian governments. Sentenced on May 18, the pair insists security officials planted the DVDs during two unannounced visits to their house on January 25. Subsequently, on January 29, four officials from the State Security Committee (GKNB) raided the property without a warrant, according to a defense lawyer. The State Committee for Religious Affairs subsequently certified the discs as extremist, and, therefore, illegal to possess and/or distribute.
Security officials in the Kadamjai District of Batken told a judge that the pair was under surveillance because they had been “preaching” and “only went out after dark.” But authorities may have suspected Kambarov and Nosirov, who are cousins of Kyrgyz ethnicity, because they come from across the Uzbekistan border in the Ferghana Valley -- a region associated with Islamic extremism. The two had applied for permanent resident status in Kyrgyzstan in 2010.
Any superficial similarities linking the pair to an extremist Islamic organization should have been disregarded after authorities established that they are Jehovah’s Witnesses, argued Hamit Iskakov, head of the Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses in Kyrgyzstan. Calling the verdict “unprecedented,” Iskakov has joined the pair’s legal team in lodging an appeal with Kyrgyzstan’s Prosecutor General.
According to Iskakov, there are currently almost 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kyrgyzstan, where three-quarters of the population is Muslim. Traditionally, the group has fared better in Kyrgyzstan than in neighboring Uzbekistan, where many communities have been denied or stripped of registration. The movement is also banned outright in Tajikistan. Jehovah’s Witnesses is a non-conformist Christian group that emphasizes evangelicalism.
The group was one of several small Christian denominations that opposed the introduction of restrictive legislation by former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration in 2009. The law, “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations,” required that religious communities have at least 200 members to obtain registration and thus operate legally. It also restricted the distribution of religious literature and “aggressive proselytism.” Kambarov and Nosirov are second-generation Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their parents converted to the religion during the late Soviet period.
“This is the first time any of our members have been tried in this manner,” Iskakov told EurasiaNet.org. “Our religion has been officially registered in Kyrgyzstan since 1998 and we have a normal, functioning relationship [with the State Committee for Religious Affairs]. We are shocked at the decision [of the Kadamjai district court in Batken] and we intend to fight.”
Felix Corley of Forum 18, an Oslo-based religious-freedom watchdog, believes that the conviction indicates the government is using anti-extremist rhetoric to contain religion. “If the government looked at the evidence, they would not make this mistake [confusing Jehovah’s Witnesses with Hizb-ut-Tahrir members]. This clearly raises the question of whether the government is interested in the evidence at all,” Corley told EurasiaNet.org.
“The Jehovah’s Witness case demonstrates serious violations of religious freedom do still occur [in Kyrgyzstan],” Corley added.
Kadyr Malikov, director of the Bishkek-based think-tank Religion, Law and Politics, agreed that the evidence pointed to a false conviction. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are a pacifistic group – they don’t practice terrorism and don’t have a history of blowing things up, so in this sense [the decision] seems like madness,” Malikov said.
He went on to say that religious groups characterized as “sects” have experienced persecution since the 2009 religion law went into effect. Mainstream Islamic and Orthodox Christian groups supported the legislation, which many say targeted not only Islamic radicals, but also small Christian denominations and foreign missionary groups.
“[Bakiyev’s] law on religion was designed in part to limit the access of small proselytizing groups to followers of the main, established religions, who lent their support to the law. Although there are no official mechanisms for realizing its provisions, the law itself is still in place. When it was drafted, it was with groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses in mind,” Malikov said.
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.