(RNS) — Sixteen imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses were released in Turkmenistan along with about 1,000 others following a pardon by the president of the predominantly Muslim country.
The unexpected move came on Saturday (May 8) as Muslims observed the “Night of Power,” one of the holiest nights of the Islamic calendar, occurring near the end of Ramadan, a sacred month of prayer and fasting.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said on Sunday the pardons were linked to the religious holiday, reported Radio Free Europe.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, ages 18-27, were imprisoned due to their conscientious objection to serving in the military in the central Asian country, said Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for the religious group. Ten of the 16 had been convicted twice.
“These young men are excited to return home and once again help support their families and local communities,” he said.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, following the dictates of their faith, do not join the military, recite patriotic pledges or sing nationalistic songs.
Lopes added that he hopes their release “is a signal that Turkmenistan will no longer imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses and, instead, will soon offer them alternative civilian service that does not conflict with their personal Christian beliefs.”
He said the men’s release was a surprise, especially given the recent history of the country’s imprisonment of members of his faith.
“In only the first three months of 2021, Turkmen courts imprisoned 8 Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is nearly the same number imprisoned each year since 2018 when the regime reinstituted imprisonment for conscientious objection,” Lopes said.
Since 2018, 32 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned in Turkmenistan for their objection to serving in the military, with many of them getting released after serving one- or two-year terms. At least one had been sentenced to a four-year term after being convicted for that reason.
Forum 18 News Service, which monitors religious liberty violations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, noted others detained for issues related to religious freedom — all of whom are Muslim — who are serving significantly longer terms in jail.
The U.S. State Department has included Turkmenistan since 2014 on its list of “countries of particular concern” that it designates as the most egregious violators of religious freedom.
“The Ambassador (Sam Brownback) personally requested that the president pardon all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors,” the State Department’s 2019 international religious freedom report stated. Brownback was the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom at the time.
“We encourage the government of Turkmenistan to provide a civilian alternative to military service, so that no more Jehovah’s Witnesses will have to endure prison for their peaceful religious practice,” said USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel. “These young men are not enemies of the state. They simply want to serve their country in a peaceful manner — and they deserve the opportunity to do so.”