U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Calls on Kazakhstan’s Government to Release Atheist Prisoner

Yesterday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called on the nation of Kazakhstan to release two prisoners, one of whom is there because he’s a public atheist:

63-year-old Aleksandr Kharlamov (seen above) has been kept in a psychiatric hospital for the past four months for “inciting religious hatred” and could face up to seven years in prison.

Damn… how did he incite all this religious hatred?

He talked about why atheism made sense and religion didn’t.

That’s it.

In the decision to indict him it was stated that “over a period of time, undetermined by the prosecution, A.M. Kharlamov, having studied world religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, has given his own interpretation of religious systems.” Aleksandr Kharlamov has laid out his philosophical views in publications. Next, the investigator states, “Being aware of the fact that his opinion is fundamentally opposed to the opinion and belief of the majority of religious people, and his actions may bring about adverse effects in the form of religious enmity and hatred and will result in a negative attitude among people towards religions, which might lead to a conflict between the people, A.M. Kharlamov has nevertheless decided to publish his ‘works’”. Aleksandr Kharlamov published his rhetoric in the media, which, in the opinion of the investigator, “could have changed the thinking and behaviour of a certain category of citizens”.

Basically, he wrote about his atheism in such a way that people might change their minds about being religious! Can’t have that. Gotta put him in jail.

That’s what the USCIRF is trying to put a stop to before it’s too late:

“Kazakh President Nazarbayev promotes his country’s record of religious tolerance, but the [Bakhytzhan] Kashkumbaev and Kharlamov cases reveal a different truth,” USCIRF Chair [Robert P.] George stated. “The use of forcible psychiatric exams is reminiscent of the worst methods that the Soviets used against dissidents. Both these men should be released immediately and all charges against them dropped.”

In its 2013 Annual Report, USCIRF detailed a decline in religious freedom protections in Kazakhstan over the past five years. The Kazakh government has enforced its 2011 religion law’s ban on unregistered religious activity, through police raids, detentions, and major fines. The law’s onerous registration requirements have also led to a sharp drop in the number of registered religious groups, both Muslim and Protestant. Due to such concerns, USCIRF for the first time has placed Kazakhstan on its Tier 2 list of those countries where religious freedom restrictions are on the threshold of those of a Country of Particular Concern.

A press release may not change the situation for Kharlamov, but getting his name out there does help make people aware of the injustices atheists have to deal with in other countries simply for speaking up.

To their credit, the USCIRF also recently issued a statement discussing the cases of Alber Saber and Alexander Aan:

In a number of nations, disseminating atheist views is specifically prohibited or restricted. Among these countries is Egypt, which USCIRF recommended in 2012 that the State Department add to its list of the world’s worst religious freedom violators. Just last month, Alber Saber was given a three-year jail sentence in Egypt for “offending” religion as a result of administering an atheist Facebook page.

Another such country is Indonesia, which USCIRF continues to monitor due to its permitting serious religious freedom abuses. Last June, Alexander Aan, a 31-year-old civil servant, was sentenced in Indonesia to a 2½-year prison term for creating a Facebook group supporting atheism and posting questions about the existence of a deity and cartoons depicting and insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Both of these cases underscore how states that persecute atheists violate not only freedom of religion or belief, but other precious freedoms, including freedom of expression. They remind us that, in the end, freedom is indivisible. There is no bright line that can be readily drawn in the sand to separate them.

The USCIRF has the ability to make “policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress” so it may be the best chance we have to help out our colleagues overseas. It would make a difference if you contacted your representatives in Congress in support of the imprisoned atheists and cited the USCIRF’s reports in the process.

(Thanks to Greg for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Edmond

    Could it be that this investigator’s fears are well founded? Could there be great swathes of people in these underdeveloped parts of the world that are so pliably open to change, so ripe for new ideas? Atheism could be just WAITING to blossom there, with the right conditions.

  • the moother

    “What? What do you mean you don’t believe that god impregnated a virgin who gave birth to himself so that he could kill himself to save us from that woman who ate the apple on the orders of a talking snake?”

    “You’re obviously mentally ill if you don’t believe that so go straight to psychiatric prison!”

  • Stev84

    In other news, NOM co-founder, theocrat and ultra-conservative nutjob Robert George was just appointed the commission’s head. When DOMA was struck down he called for a national rebellion and vowed to defy any law that he perceived as going against his god’s will.

    This commission has always been a joke that’s mostly about safe-guarding the freedom of Christians more than anyone else. Or to satisfy people’s own particular interests. The appointment process has led to it becoming highly politicized and partisan. Also note that it says “Muslims and Protestant”. Apparently Catholics don’t count.


  • GodlessPoutine

    This is encouraging. If only we could convince our “Office of Religious Freedom” up here in Canada to stick up for the freedom from religion as well as for religion.

  • Mario Strada

    I am going out on a limb and assume Kazakhstan doesn’t have an equivalent of our First Amendment.

  • Ben

    It amuses me how often atheists take a literal definition of the Bible to make some sort of argument.

  • the moother

    So then, the bible is only to be taken figuratively. Which basically means we can make up any interpretation of it that we want.

    Except for that bit about the gays… yeah, we’re supposed to take that literally otherwise we’d have no reason to hate them eh?

    Tell me then, that whole business of “sin” in the garden of eden… also figurative? Does that mean that “original sin” is also just a metaphor? A metaphor for what then? And if there is no original sin then the entire basis for christianity dissolves before our very eyes…

    Face it, religion is just made-up nonsense… an omnipotent being would have made the manual by which we are supposed to live our lives a lot clearer and a lot less open to interpretation.

  • Dave G.

    Cherry picked. Hopefully he will be released. Along with endless religious believers persecuted and held in a host of countries around the world, including that number one bastion of atheism, Communist China, home of the largest population of atheists in the world, and known persecutor and oppressor of religious belief. So let’s all join together and call for an end to persecution of anyone over their religious or non-religious beliefs. That would be the best way to go, assuming we all want a world that doesn’t persecute anyone over their religious or non-religious beliefs.

  • The Other Weirdo

    That may have been a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the story, but the story itself is actually there in the Bible. Can you explain why that story is mere metaphor and how we may know the difference?

  • The Other Weirdo

    I suspect that the citizens of the Kazakhstan should have been paying closer attention to reality and not to a fictional character played by an indifferent actor.

  • peacecorps2006

    I have spent a lot of time in Kazakhstan and Kazakhs are very tolerant of different religions and faiths. You can believe what ever you want in Kazakhstan. You can be an atheist too. The oldest synagogue in Central Asia is in Kazakhstan, and the most beautiful Russian orthodox church is in Almaty.