By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service
After nearly four weeks’ imprisonment, during which fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses say she suffered «severe physical abuse», Bibi Rahmanova was released from prison in Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan on 2 September. She was freed after the appeal court changed her four-year prison sentence into a suspended sentence, according to the decision seen by Forum 18 News Service. Her appeal to be acquitted of the charges of attacking a police officer and hooliganism was rejected. Rahmanova’s release from prison leaves nine other individuals known to be in prison because of their faith. Six are conscientious objectors to compulsory military service (all Jehovah’s Witnesses). Two other Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned on charges their fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses insist were fabricated to punish them for their faith. One Protestant is in prison on charges his fellow Protestants say should not have led to imprisonment. Murad Atabaev of Parliament’s Committee on the Protection of Human Rights claimed that a proposed Alternative Service Law had been drafted in 2013 but that he had not seen the text. «When it will be adopted – I don’t know,» he told Forum 18.
Jehovah’s Witness Bibi Rahmanova – sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on 18 August – had her sentence suspended on appeal on 2 September, according to the court decision seen by Forum 18 News Service. She was freed from prison in Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan that evening after nearly four weeks’ detention. She will now serve her four-year conditional sentence at home, living on probation for three years. During that time she must maintain «good behaviour» and needs permission from the authorities to leave her home city of Dashoguz or move to another location.
Jehovah’s Witnesses welcome Rahmanova’s release from prison, which they note «improved her situation». «The family is delighted to be reunited again,» they told Forum 18. However, they lament that the appeal court decision «failed to correct an injustice» by rejecting her appeal for an acquittal.
The 33-year-old Rahmanova – who is married with a four-year-old son – suffered «severe physical abuse» while in detention, both from staff and from some of her fellow prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18.
The appeal court verdict notes that criminal charges against her husband, Vepa Tuvakov were dropped. It gives the date for this as 2 July, but this appears to be a mistake, as Rahmanova and Tuvakov were detained only on 5 July and criminal charges against both were lodged after that.
Rahmanova’s release from prison leaves nine other individuals known to be in prison because of their faith. Six are conscientious objectors to compulsory military service (all Jehovah’s Witnesses). Two other Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned on charges their fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses insist were fabricated to punish them for their faith. One Protestant is in prison on charges his fellow Protestants say should not have led to imprisonment (see below).
Although a parliamentary deputy told Forum 18 that a draft Alternative Service Law was prepared in 2013, he said he did not know if and when it might be adopted (see below).
Also a Protestant has been fined for possessing religious literature which has not passed through the compulsory state censorship (see below).
The telephone of Gurbanberdy Nursakhatov, Deputy Chair of the government’s Gengesh (Council) for Religious Affairs in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat], went unanswered each time Forum 18 called on 29 September.
Arrest, criminal charges
Trouble began for Rahmanova at Dashoguz train station late in the evening of 5 July. She, her husband and their son had gone there to collect religious literature sent to them from Ashgabad. Officials of the Ministry of State Security (MSS) secret police, Transport Police, Police 6th Department and the local Religious Affairs office seized the family as they picked up the consignment. The MSS secret police had learnt at lunchtime that day that the couple would be collecting the literature. It remains unclear how they found this out.
The couple’s son was freed on the morning of 6 July and Rahmanova in the evening. Tuvakov was released only on 11 July. Rahmanova heard police discussing how they would fabricate a criminal case against her husband, who was also beaten at the police station.
However, although criminal charges were lodged against both, Rahmanova was arrested on 7 August. She had been accused the previous day of violating Criminal Code Article 211, Part 1 («resisting the police with violence not risking life or health» with a prison sentence of up to two years) and Article 279, Part 2 b (which punishes hooliganism «connected with resisting a law enforcement officer» with a prison sentence of up to five years).
On 18 August, Judge Gaigysyz Orazmuradov of Dashoguz City Court sentenced Rahmanova to four years’ imprisonment in a general regime labour camp. She was held in Dashoguz Investigation Prison while awaiting her appeal.
In her 27 August appeal, filed the following day and seen by Forum 18, Rahmanova insisted she had not assaulted any of the officials at the train station and was not guilty of any crime. She therefore called for the conviction to be overturned. She said she had responded «instinctively» when officers touched her inappropriately when seizing her mobile phone which she had hidden inside her shirt.
Rahmanova noted that the officers «had not hidden the fact that they had come to the railway station because of our religious affiliation». She pointed out that they already knew that she and her husband were Jehovah’s Witnesses without needing to ask and that the religious affairs official of the hyakimlik (administration) also «happened to be there».
A panel of three judges, headed by Judge G. Agoyliyev, heard Rahmanova’s appeal at Dashoguz Regional Court on 2 September. She was given no notice of the appeal hearing, so no lawyer was able to represent her, Jehovah’s Witnesses complained to Forum 18.
The Judges rejected Rahmanova’s insistence she had not assaulted the officers, claiming that her assertions were «unfounded». In its account of the events on the evening of 5 July, the court decision claims that the Jehovah’s Witness literature Rahmanova and her husband were collecting from the station was «prohibited for reading or distribution in Turkmenistan» as it had not been approved by the Justice Ministry.
The decision claims that Dashoguz Regional Prosecutor G. Balliyeva had deemed the four-year prison sentence «too harsh», given that Rahmanova is a woman and the mother of a four-year-old son and had no previous criminal record. The Judges therefore upheld the Prosecutor’s Office request to amend the verdict to a suspended sentence.
No one at Dashoguz Appeal Court would discuss the case with Forum 18 on 29 September or put Forum 18 through to any of the three judges who rejected Rahmanova’s appeal.