Wed, 14 Apr 2021

Shamil Khakimov, a Jehovah's Witness who turned 70 last month, marked two years in a Tajik prison on February 26 after his conviction in part for having a Bible.

Khakimov had been arrested in Khujand on charges of "inciting religious hatred" after police found literature published by the Jehovah's Witnesses in his home. During his closed trial, prosecutors revealed that the State Committee for National Security, the successor agency to the KGB, had commissioned a study that concluded that a Tajik translation of the Bible (a Stockholm-published version used by many different Christian denominations) also "incites religious hatred" and should also be banned, Forum 18, a religious rights watchdog, reported at the time. Khakimov was jailed for 7.5 years.

Tajikistan routinely deploys vague religious extremism laws to punish people for non-violent acts and beliefs or positions that could fairly be called "thoughtcrimes." Journalists have been harassed and jailed for writing about Islam and news outlets banned by prosecutors who conflate religious topics with terrorism.

The U.S. State Department designates Tajikistan a "country of particular concern" for its "severe religious freedom violations." Though most of those jailed are Muslims who practice outside of the strictly monitored state-run mosque system, individuals from Christian denominations are harassed and sometimes jailed. Last year, Jovidon Bobojonov, a Jehovah's Witness jailed for conscientious objection, was reportedly tortured. The Culture Ministry banned Jehovah's Witnesses in 2007, citing their distribution of religious literature.

A member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a nonpartisan government monitor, recently took on Khakimov's cause. A commission member, Nury Turkel, said Dushanbe is treating Khakimov "in an appalling way."

"Since 2019, this ailing, elderly man has been languishing in a decrepit and overcrowded prison," Turkel said, suggesting the evidence against him was bogus and adding: "This term could very well represent a death sentence for a man wrongly imprisoned for peacefully practicing his religious beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness."

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