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KHUJAND, Tajikistan -- A Tajik justice official says a criminal case has been reopened against 17 Jehovah's Witnesses for fomenting religious hatred, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports.

Jamhur Jiyanov, an aide to the prosecutor in the northern Sughd Province, told RFE/RL on July 7 that investigators from the State Security Committee had launched a preliminary investigation under Article 189 of the Criminal Code on "promoting religious or ethnic hatred."

If found guilty, the suspects could face prison terms of between five and 12 years.

Zafar Rahimov, a member of the Christian group, told RFE/RL that neither he nor any of his fellow Jehovah's Witnesses had so far been detained.

However, he said they had received letters from a local court notifying them that a criminal case against them has been reopened.

The 17 were detained last year during a gathering at the home of a Jehovah's Witness and they were subsequently accused of illegal activities.

They explained they had only gathered in order to read religious books and had done nothing against the state.

Early this year, the state prosecutor's office ruled that the sect's activities in Sughd were not criminal and it suspended the case.

Jehovah's Witnesses were legally registered in Tajikistan in 1994.

But the Culture Ministry banned the religious group's activities in October 2007 because the group's literature attacks other religions, since its members actively proselytize and have prayer meetings in their homes rather than in designated buildings.

The ministry also accused Jehovah's Witnesses of antistate propaganda because of their efforts to discourage young men from performing military service.

The religious group filed an appeal with the Tajik Supreme Court on the government's ban on the sect's activities in Tajikistan.
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