Turkmenistan should introduce alternatives to army conscription for conscientious objectors instead of locking them up, say NBCentralAsia observers.
On August 14, Amnesty International designated Suleiman Udaev, a member of the Jehovah Witnesses in Turkmenistan, as a prisoner of conscience. A court sentenced him to 18 months imprisonment on August 7 for refusing to perform compulsory military service.
Amnesty International reports that two other Jehovah Witnesses who refused military service were earlier given two-year suspended sentences, while a third has had his 18-month prison term reduced to a one-year suspended sentence.
A 2002 law on military conscription makes no provision for alternative forms of service for those who object to serving in the army on religious or ethical grounds. Although Turkmen legislation guarantees freedom of confession, religious believers face persecution or deportation if they refuse to be sworn in as soldiers while holding a gun. Evading military service carries a sentence of hard labour or prison for up to two years.
NBCentralAsia observers in Turkmenistan point out that an unofficial alternative to military service is commonplace, and it could be formalised as a legal option for those who refuse to bear arms for religious reasons. More than half of all military servicemen are not in active-service units, and are instead assigned to work in civilian sectors as hospital orderlies, construction workers or farming.
“A de facto alternative to army service already exists. It is simply not institutionalised, and servicemen have to swear an oath of allegiance to the state while holding a weapon, which Jehovah witnesses object to,” said an NBCentralAsia observer in Ashgabat.
This observer said he doubted the government would consider legalising alternative service any time soon, although the government is looking into the possibility of creating a professional standing army with reserves.
Vyacheslav Mamedov, the leader of the Leader of the Civic Democratic Union, a Turkmen group based abroad, says the army is in need of a major overhaul, a costly and time-consuming exercise, and only after that will the authorities be in a position to make a decision on alternative service.
“Alternative service can only be introduced as a part of a general armed forces reform, which is totally impossible at the moment. The authorities have not solved the most basic problems with the armed forces,” he said.
(NBCentralAsia draws opinion from a wide range of observers throughout the region)