TURKMENISTAN: Is publishing religious poetry a crime?
After Protestant Begjan Shirmedov tried to print copies of a small book of his religious poetry, a local religious affairs official waiting for him at the printing shop took him to the Police 6th Department, responsible for counter-terrorism and organised crime work. There the 74-year-old poet was questioned for six hours, forced to write a statement and banned from travelling outside his home region of Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan while his case is investigated, Protestants told Forum 18. Separately, other local Protestants in Dashoguz have been questioned over printing religious materials. It remains unclear if any will face charges. Turkmenistan imposes strict censorship on religious literature. Meanwhile, the appeal of Jehovah's Witness Vladimir Nuryllayev against his four-year prison sentence is due at Ashgabad City Court on 14 February. His fellow Jehovah's Witnesses vigorously deny charges he was "distributing pornography" and insist he is being punished for his faith. Seven other religious prisoners of conscience are known to be held.
No officials were prepared to comment on any of these cases. The man who answered the phone on 8 February at the Dashoguz Region Gengesh (Council) for Religious Affairs put the phone down as soon as Forum 18 began to ask why people were being investigated for wanting to print religious materials.
The man who answered the telephone of Gurbanberdy Nursakhatov, Deputy Chair of the government's Gengesh for Religious Affairs in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat], similarly put the phone down on 8 February as soon as Forum 18 began to put its questions.
The man who answered the telephone the same day of Fr Andrei Sapunov, a Russian Orthodox priest and another Deputy Chair of the Gengesh with responsibility for Christian communities (including non-Orthodox communities), repeatedly told Forum 18 the same day that it was a wrong number.
The woman who answered the phone on 8 February of the secretary of Yazdursun Gurbannazarova, Director of the government's National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights in Ashgabad, told Forum 18 it was a wrong number.
Trying to print religious poetry
Shirmedov, a member of a Protestant church in Dashoguz which has long been seeking state registration in vain, has been writing Christian poetry in Turkmen for some years, Protestants told Forum 18. Wanting to have some of them printed so that he could give copies away, he went to a local printing shop. Knowing the authorities' sensitivity over religious literature, he told the printing shop staff that the poetry was religious and asked if this would be a problem. They insisted it would not.
When Shirmedov returned to the printing shop on 3 February hoping to collect copies, an official of the Regional Gengesh, Hudainazar (last name unknown), was waiting for him. The official took Shirmedov to the Police's 6th Department, which is notionally responsible for counter-terrorism and organised crime work. There officers questioned Shirmedov for six hours and forced him to write a statement. He stressed in the statement that he had been careful to check with the printing house whether printing religious literature was permitted before placing his order.
Police told Shirmedov that he is not allowed to leave Dashoguz Region while the investigation continues. It remains unclear if any charges will be brought against him and what he is being investigated for.
Shirmedov's church, Path of Faith Baptist Church, again tried to find out in January why its registration application has languished unanswered for many years. About forty church members who travelled to the resort of Avaza on the Caspian Sea for an August 2011 holiday were detained, questioned and insulted by the police and the local imam because of their faith. They were forced to abandon their holiday (see F18News 5 September 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1609).
One of Shirmedov's sons, Merdan, who had married a US citizen, was barred from leaving Turkmenistan in January 2007 to be reunited with his wife and to be present for the birth of their first baby, who was born in May 2007. The exit ban was lifted in July 2007 (see F18News 31 August 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1013).
Separate printing investigation
A separate investigation is also underway in Dashoguz against members of another local Protestant church for printing materials in late 2011 for use at a Christian meeting, Protestants told Forum 18. Several church members have already been interrogated.
It remains unclear whether any charges have been or are likely to be brought against church members.
Tight publishing controls
Turkmenistan retains tight controls on all publishing. Very few books are published in the country and few bookshops exist. Publishing of religious books is almost impossible. Publication of small Muslim pamphlets has only occasionally been allowed. Yet when a conference on a noted twelfth-century Sufi Muslim poet, Khoja Ahmad Yasawi, was being planned for September 2010 in Ashgabad by the Academy of Sciences and the Makhtymguli Institute of Language and Literature, one of the organisers admitted to Forum 18 that none of his works were currently available in print in Turkmenistan (see F18News 3 August 2010 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1474).
Other faiths have even fewer possibilities. Turkmenistan remains the only former Soviet republic with no possibility for a Bible Society to even exist. (Bible Societies are organisations formed by Christian churches to translate and make available Bibles and associated materials.) The government has rejected repeated attempts by some of Turkmenistan's Christian churches to join together to form one.
Importing religious books is also almost impossible. Only occasionally have the few religious organisations able to get state registration been given permission by the Gengesh for Religious Affairs to do so. Even then, copies have been restricted to the number of members an individual community has.
The only religious community which appears to have been able to import religious literature and other items is the Russian Orthodox Church, which has about 12 parishes in the country. "We have been able to bring in several containers of literature and other items in the past few years," one priest told Forum 18. "We have a store at the Aleksandr Nevsky cathedral in Ashgabad and parishes can order supplies from there."
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, noted in February 2011 that Turkmen government controls on importing religious material had been lifted. He described the earlier restrictions on importing church article and literature as "a major problem" (see F18News 11 March 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1551).
Religious literature is frequently confiscated from travellers from abroad, especially Turkmen residents returning from foreign visits (including Orthodox Christians). Such confiscations have included personal copies of the Koran or the Bible. Also known to have been confiscated are religious objects, including baptismal crosses, incense and Muslim prayer rugs (see F18News 25 January 2012 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1660).
Local religious believers have long complained about this state censorship of religious literature (see F18News 12 May 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1294).
Appeal against four-year prison sentence
Nuryllayev, an Ashgabad-based Jehovah's Witness, was brought to the attention of the police in September 2011 by one of his relatives with whom he had come into conflict. The following month, police came to the flat he shares with other family members, and seized his religious literature. He was fined, but was not told what the fine was for. Two officials who claimed to be from the hyakimlik (local administration) then visited and – after beating him - seized his notebook computer. On 15 November 2011 he was arrested and taken to the pre-trial detention centre at Yashlyk, 40 kms (25 miles) south-east of Ashgabad.
Nuryllayev was accused of distributing pornography, an accusation fellow Jehovah's Witnesses vigorously rejected to Forum 18. On 18 January, Judge Iskander Bekdurdiyev of Ashgabad's Azatlyk District Court sentenced Nuryllayev to four years' imprisonment under Criminal Code Article 164, Part 2. This Article punishes "production or distribution of pornographic items" more than once or by a group of people. The maximum penalty is five years' imprisonment (see F18News 25 January 2012 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1660).
Jehovah's Witnesses complain that they knew nothing about the trial until after it had taken place. They also complain about the way it was conducted. "The Judge several times went up to his office to show pornographic recordings on Vladimir's computer," they told Forum 18. "Vladimir had to close his eyes and block his ears so as not to see or hear these abominations. He told them again that these recordings had never been on his computer earlier. Even the two witnesses he was alleged to have passed the recordings to weren't in court."
Jehovah's Witnesses pointed out that the computer is old and cannot connect to the internet, while the flash drive does not work. They insist the authorities must have used some technical skill to put the recordings on the computer.
Nuryllayev is awaiting his 14 February appeal hearing in Yashlyk detention centre.
Seven known religious prisoners of conscience in one labour camp
Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Aziz Roziev was freed from the labour camp in Seydi in the eastern Lebap Region on 4 February on completion of his prison term, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Originally from the town of Seydi near the labour camp, he had been sentenced in August 2010 to 18-months' imprisonment for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience (see F18News 4 October 2010 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1495).
Roziev's release leaves seven known religious prisoners of conscience in the Seydi camp. Six of them are Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors, all sentenced under Article 219, Part 1 of the Criminal Code. This punishes refusal to serve in the armed forces in peacetime with a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment (see F18News 25 January 2012 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1660).
The seventh known religious prisoner of conscience is Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev, who leads Light to the World Protestant Church in the town of Mary east of Ashgabad. Arrested in August 2010, he was given a four-year labour camp term in October 2010 with "forcible medical treatment" on charges of swindling. His community insist the charges were fabricated to punish him for his religious activity (see F18News 22 December 2010 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1525).
United Nations to examine Turkmenistan's record
The United Nations Human Rights Committee is set to examine Turkmenistan's record under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) at its meeting in New York on 15 and 16 March, the UN website notes. Article 18 of the ICCPR – to which Turkmenistan acceded in 1997 - guarantees the right freely to have or adopt a religion, to meet with others and engage in religious activity, such as "in worship, observance, practice and teaching".
Turkmenistan's restrictions on religious freedom have been repeatedly condemned by various UN bodies. Most recently, in December 2011 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights criticised a range of restrictions, including the ban on meeting for worship in private homes, the ban on unregistered religious activity, the ban on non-clerics wearing religious garb in public and "undue registration criteria" which denied registration to many communities seeking to obtain it (see F18News 25 January 2012 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1660).
In February 2010, the then United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir, and the Chair of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, El Hadji Malick Sow, wrote an "urgent appeal" to the Turkmen government about imprisoned Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors. In February 2011 Jahangir's successor, Heiner Bielefeldt, lamented the Turkmen government's failure to respond (see F18News 9 March 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1550). (END)
For a personal commentary by a Protestant within Turkmenistan, on the fiction - despite government claims - of religious freedom in the country, and how religious communities and the international community should respond to this, see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=728.
For a personal commentary by another Turkmen Protestant, arguing that "without freedom to meet for worship it is impossible to claim that we have freedom of religion or belief," see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1128.
More reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Turkmenistan can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=32.
For more background information see Forum 18's religious freedom survey of Turkmenistan at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1512.
A compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1351.
A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/mapping/outline-map/?map=Turkmenistan.
25 January 2012
After a "secret trial" in the capital Ashgabad on 18 January which his family and friends knew nothing about, Jehovah's Witness Vladimir Nuryllayev was sentenced to four years' imprisonment on charges of "spreading pornography", a court official told Forum 18 News Service. "All this has been done because he is a Jehovah's Witness," fellow Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. "Vladimir is a highly moral and deeply devout person and has nothing to do with pornography." The Investigator refused to discuss the case. An unverified report says a Muslim may have been sentenced in 2011 on similar charges for distributing religious discs. Eight other religious prisoners of conscience are known to be in labour camp. Recently freed prisoners have testified of beatings and punishments of solitary confinement. "A member of the Special Police Force (OMON) entered my cell on two occasions and beat me on the head and neck with his baton," one recalled. A Deputy Justice Minister claimed to a United Nations Committee in November 2011 that Turkmenistan has no political prisoners. The UN Committee called on Turkmenistan to end the "various restrictions impacting negatively on the freedom of religion".
7 November 2011
The Uzbek authorities have again this year imposed severe restrictions on how many pilgrims could take part in this year's haj pilgrimage, now underway in Saudi Arabia. Only 5,080 out of a potential quota of about 28,000 travelled to Mecca. About as many pilgrims travelled from Kyrgyzstan as from Uzbekistan, more than five times more populous. An official of one Sergeli District mahalla (neighbourhood), with between 3,000 and 7,000 residents, told Forum 18 News Service that "our mahalla will be able to send pilgrims only in 2012. Several people are on the waiting list but maybe only one will go." As before, an "unwritten instruction" banned would-be pilgrims under the age of 45, officials of a local mahalla committee in Tashkent told Forum 18. Pilgrims faced official screening, while secret police officers reportedly accompany the pilgrims. An Imam outside Tashkent, who did not wish to be named for fear of state reprisals, complained that "unofficial payments" more than doubled the cost of the haj. "The number of applicants would be much, much higher if the cost was not so high," he lamented to Forum 18.
22 September 2011
Jehovah's Witness Mahmud Hudaybergenov was given the maximum two-year labour camp sentence in early August in Turkmenistan's north-eastern city of Dashoguz for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, local Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. He was prevented from lodging an appeal. He is the eighth current known imprisoned conscientious objector, while the ninth known religious prisoner of conscience is a Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev. Another Jehovah's Witness given a one-year labour camp sentence on the same charges in July was freed under amnesty in late August. Meanwhile, one Ashgabad-based observer told Forum 18 the number of Muslims the Turkmen authorities are likely to allow to travel on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca in November is "about 180", out of a quota believed to be 5,000. While one regional state religious affairs official told Forum 18 pilgrims' documentation has been prepared and sent to Ashgabad, no official would give Forum 18 the number. The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Ashgabad told Forum 18 the number of haj visas it is issuing is "secret information".