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.


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