On March 14, 2013, a 63-year-old atheist writer named Aleksandr Kharlamov was arrested in his hometown of Ridder in the east region of Kazakhstan and tried under the country’s Criminal Code Article 164 on charges of “inciting religious hatred” for articles he wrote criticizing religion. According to Forum 18 News Service based in Oslo, Norway, Kharlamov’s sentence included a month of enforced psychiatric detention and five months in prison. During that time Kharlamov lost 44 pounds.
On July 25, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body appointed by President Barack Obama, called upon the Kazakh government to release Kharlamov. USCIRF Chair Robert P. George stated, “Kazakhstan, once a leader in Central Asia on freedom of religion or belief, is a leader no more.”
According to USCIRF, religious freedom protections in Kazakhstan have declined since the passing of a 2011 law banning “unregistered religious activity.” Anything deemed as such could invite police raids and carry penalties including detentions and major fines. Due to such curbs of religious freedom, USCIRF for the first time placed Kazakhstan on its Tier 2 list of countries for consideration as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), designed by the U.S. secretary of state to be a nation that severely suppresses religious freedom through torture or cruel punishment, prolonged detention without charges, and other violations to life and liberty. CPCs are usually subject to economic sanctions by the United States.
Kharlamov was released on September 4, but the case continues against him with a possible 7-year prison term. He also signed a pledge not to leave his hometown, with no time limit set on how long Kharlamov will live under such restrictions. In addition, Kharlamov was expected to begin receiving a retirement pension on July 2 when he turned 63, but his funds and property have been frozen pending the results of the trial.
Thanks to connections with USCIRF, along with Felix Corley, reporter for Forum 18 News Service, and Kuat Rakhimberdin of the Kazakhstan Bureau of Human Rights, the American Humanist Association connected with Kharlamov and supported his legal efforts with a $2,000 donation as part of its increased work to defend the rights of nonbelievers abroad. Kharlamov took time to answer a few questions for TheHumanist.com (translated from Russian):
TheHumanist.com: Tell us about your writings on the topic of atheism.
Kharlamov: I’ve written several books with atheistic themes. My first book was published electronically in 2004, entitled What is True Christianity? I argued that Jesus Christ was a real historical figure who developed morality and ethics—he called on humanity to eliminate war and crime, the exploitation of man by man, and to live in peace and harmony. My second book was titled, What is He? The True Creator of the Universe and Humanity. I give a description of how matter originated from space, how our universe, the sun, and Earth were formed. I expand on primitive people and our mental development over millions of years, concluding that humans were the true “gods” who created humankind and brought forth scientists, inventors, writing, math, airplanes, spaceships, and the truth.
Scientific discoveries and technological inventions toward the betterment of humanity are the true source of morality, not imaginary gods, not priests, not imams, not general politicians or rulers; only brilliant philosophers, scientists, and inventors will improve our basic livelihood, defeat disease, and end corruption and crime.
Also in my books, I urge citizens of all countries, including Kazakhstan, to follow the examples of Switzerland and Sweden, who have laws on religious neutrality and do not participate in religious wars. For all of this and more I was accused of inciting religious hatred, and then I was imprisoned.
TheHumanist.com: Do you know of other atheists living in modern Kazakhstan?
Kharlamov: Yes, there are other atheists living in Kazakhstan. Many of my colleagues, who are journalists and human rights activists, are atheists, and there are many more. These people came to my defense. Atheists in Kazakhstan are highly spiritual and highly moral people, but they don’t believe in fictional gods. It is our hope that humanity will not disappear from the face of the planet, but that we will help build a new civilization of truth and justice.
TheHumanist.com: Do you think there will be freedom of religion in modern Kazakhstan?
Kharlamov: In modern Kazakhstan, under the current political and legal regime, there is no true freedom of religion, and the situation is getting worse and worse. It is evident that most Kazakh authorities support the religion of Islam and persecute non-Muslims, including atheists. However, religious Islamists create organized crime and extremist militias, religious Kazakhstans commit crimes, and participate in armed religious conflict, like in Syria. Fanatics from the religion of Islam believe that their religion is the one true one and should become the only religion on the planet.
TheHumanist.com: How difficult is it to be an atheist in modern Kazakhstan?
Kharlamov: In modern Kazakhstan it’s very difficult, because true atheists reject inventions and fight against every lie. We have to deal with people who spread lies, misinformation, inadequate thinking, and primitive ideology. People who are honest, truthful, and fair are taken into custody and put in prison or in camps. This hampers science, technology, and social progress.