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Rights groups call for release of conscientious objectors

Human rights groups have called for the immediate release of two conscientious objectors in Turkmenistan who, citing religious grounds, have refused to do their military service. "We are calling for their prompt and unconditional release," Anna Sunder-Plassman, a researcher for Amnesty International (AI), told IRIN from London on Thursday. "In addition, we are urging the authorities to introduce a truly civilian alternative to military service for those who refuse to serve in the army on religious grounds." Unless Turkmenistan made such a move, this would continue to be a problem in the country, she warned, adding that religious freedom was severely restricted in the reclusive Central Asian state. According to a statement by the watchdog group on Tuesday, Mansur Masharipov and Vepa Tuvakov, both Jehovah's Witnesses, were arrested in the northeastern town of Dashoguz in May and sentenced to 18 months in prison, adding that there had been credible reports of Turkmen conscientious objectors being beaten while in detention and threatened with repercussions if they did not renounce their faith. And while Turkmenistan's autocratic President Saparmurat Niyazov had ordered the release of six Jehovah's Witnesses in mid-June in what appeared to be a further concession to foreign pressure to end violations of religious freedoms, Forum 18, a news agency monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and eastern Europe, noted the fact that both Masharipov and Tuvakov were still imprisoned highlighted the continuing threats to such freedoms in the largely desert, but energy-rich state. "Jehovah's Witnesses - like followers of other faiths - have in recent years been fined, sacked from their jobs, had their services and meetings raided and been threatened for trying to practise their faith," Felix Corley, the editor of Forum 18, told IRIN from London. As recently as 10 June, five local government officials raided an individual believer's home, seizing two copies of the Bible during the search, Corley claimed, adding that local Jehovah's Witnesses found it hard to believe after years of persecution that the government had really changed - a reference to a decision in March by the government to ease the registration of religious organisations. Under the new rules, the groups must be established by at least five Turkmen citizens who permanently live in the country and have a minimum membership of 51, a major change over an earlier requirement requiring religious organisations to have at least 500 members. Until recently, only two religions, Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, were officially recognised by the state, but even they faced close government scrutiny. As for the two men being held, Corley noted that Jehovah's Witnesses in the country would like to see the two prisoners freed, an end to compulsory military service (Turkmenistan at present does not offer alternative service) and the chance to practise their faith freely. Sunder-Plassman added that, as a member of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkmenistan had committed itself to consider introducing various forms of alternative service that were compatible with the reasons for conscientious objection. The human rights activist emphasized that recent measures taken by Ashgabat to avoid being classified as a "country of particular concern" under the US International Religious Freedom Act proved that the Turkmen authorities were sensitive to international pressure. "It is important that the international community pushes for the implementation of the recommendations issued by international bodies such as the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN General Assembly and does not let Turkmenistan off the hook because it has taken steps that look good but may not actually change the situation on the ground," she said. It is mandatory for all males to perform 18 months of military service at the age of 18. In an effort to cut costs, following the announcement of massive redundancies by the government earlier this year, soldiers have increasingly been seen assuming jobs in the country's health sector and civil service.
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