UZBEKISTAN: Jehovah's Witnesses Criticise Conscientious Objector Trials.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 6 April 2001

Representatives of Uzbekistan's Jehovah's Witness community have criticised the treatment of their members who reject compulsory military service because of their religious beliefs. Speaking to Keston News Service in Tashkent on 18 March, the representatives – who preferred not to be named - complained that Jehovah's Witnesses are not allowed to do alternative service and continue to be sentenced for refusing military service, often being given `punitive' fines. However, they expressed some satisfaction that their conscientious objectors are not currently being sentenced to terms of imprisonment, unlike in Armenia and Turkmenistan, for example.

The representatives explained that on refusing the first call-up, conscientious objectors are generally treated under the administrative code, which punishes lesser offences, and are given administrative fines. However, on second and subsequent occasions, criminal cases are launched which usually lead to sentences of compulsory labour, suspended terms of imprisonment or fines of between five to ten times the minimum monthly wage. `These fines in particular may not sound much but represent a heavy burden on individuals, especially as average wages are so low,' the representatives told Keston. `Every year there are such trials.'

The Jehovah's Witnesses believed such treatment of conscientious objectors who oppose army service on religious grounds was something Uzbekistan should have put behind it. `It is not acceptable in a democratic society.'

Uzbekistan adopted a law on alternative service on 3 July 1992, allowing exemption from compulsory military service for those with at least four siblings under the age of 16, with siblings or parents who became invalids during military service or `members of registered religious organisations whose religious teaching does not allow the bearing of arms or service in the armed forces'. However, Jehovah's Witnesses - who have only two registered communities in Uzbekistan (see separate KNS article) - are not allowed to opt for alternative service.

Those allowed to do alternative service are paid only three quarters of their wages, according to Major Murad Kazakov, chief of Tashkent's department of the defence administration, in an interview with the newspaper Pravda Vostoka of 3 March 2000, with the remainder going to the state. He added that even then, wages are often paid late. He also confirmed that alternative service lasts two years, compared with only eighteen months of military service.

Although Jehovah's Witnesses have traditionally strongly opposed all fighting and army service, the representatives stressed that the decision whether or not to serve in the armed forces was a decision for each member. `Each individual chooses his position personally on the basis of his own conscience.' They claimed some Jehovah's Witnesses did decide to serve in the armed forces, although they said this was rare. (END)