TURKMENISTAN: Carpet seized to pay illegal Baptist fine
Forum 18 News Service has learnt that officials have seized property from Baptists, in order to pay a fine imposed last year for unregistered worship in a private flat. The prosecution is illegal under international law and breaks the human rights agreements Turkmenistan has signed. The Baptists, Yelena and Vladimir Lemeshko, believe they are innocent of any offence. The local court has refused to give them a copy of the order confiscating their property and officials have refused to talk to Forum 18.
Yelena Lemeshko, who is currently on enforced leave from her work and has four young children, received a court summons on 22 January for non-payment of her fine for attending the service. She refused to come to court, because she believes she is innocent of any offence, the local Baptists told Forum 18. In international law, the fine for unregistered worship is illegal. Also fined was her husband, Vladimir Lemeshko. He had a job at a local factory, and his fine was deducted from his wages, as happened to other Baptists.
On 26 January, the court executor M. Ilbaev, along with his colleague Mamedov and two neighbours who were acting as witnesses, came to the Lemeshko family apartment. Ilbaev warned Yelena Lemeshko that her belongings would be confiscated in lieu of the unpaid fine if she did not pay up by 31 January. On the spot, without waiting for 31 January, they took down a carpet (measuring 2 by 3 metres) hanging on the wall and a wall clock, filled out a form stating that belongings had been confiscated, and took them away with them. When Yelena Lemeshko's husband Vladimir complained that the confiscated items were worth more than the sum of the fine, Ilbaev replied: "Never mind, we'll value them at the amount we need." As he left, he added: "This is how it will be with everyone that doesn't pay their fines."
On 27 January, Vladimir Lemeshko appealed to the court to give him a copy of its decision on the confiscation of belongings, but was refused outright.
Forum 18 News Service tried to reach the Lemeshko flat in Turkmenbashi, as well as the number for Maria Sheldkret, who owned the apartment where the raided service took place. However, no-one answered the telephone in either home. It is possible that the authorities have cut off the telephone lines to both homes.
The fines were imposed after officials on 11 May 2003 raided and broke up the Turkmenbashi Baptist church's service in the home of church member Maria Sheldkret (see F18News 15 May 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=55 ). Those attending the service were subsequently summoned to a hearing of the administrative commission where they were each fined 250,000 manats (12 US dollars at the street exchange rate, equivalent to 85 Norwegian Kroner or 10 Euros). [The average salary is estimated to be no more than US$30 a month.] The Baptists refused to admit any guilt, and stated in writing that the accusation that they had met unlawfully was false.
These Baptists belong to the Council of Churches (or unregistered Baptists), who split from the All-Union Council of Baptists in 1961, when state-sponsored controls were introduced by the then leadership. It has refused state registration ever since.
Forum 18's attempts to talk to officials also failed. On 20 February, Forum 18 reached the receptionist for the Turkmenbashi procuracy, Khimry Ovlyagulyamova, by telephone. The procuracy's aide told Forum 18 that the public prosecutor would be there in one hour's time. However, when Forum 18 telephoned an hour later, the man who picked up the receiver asked who was asking for the public prosecutor. When Forum 18 identified itself, the man declared "You've come through to the wrong number," and hung up. Each time subsequently the receiver at the procuracy was put down straight away.
Turkmenistan has one of the harshest systems of state control over religious life of any of the former Soviet republics, and almost no pretence of its rejection of religious freedom. The latest religion law, which came into force at the time of its publication in the official press on 10 November 2003, criminalises unregistered religious ctivity. This is illegal under international law and defies human rights agreements signed by Turkmenistan.
For more background see Forum 18's report on the new religion law at
and Forum 18's latest religious freedom survey at
A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at
16 February 2004
In all Central Asian states easily the largest percentage of the population belongs to nationalities that are historically Muslim, but it is very difficult to state the percentage of devout Muslim believers. Governments are intensely pre-occupied by "political Islam", especially the banned strongly anti-western and antisemitic international Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. However, there is absolutely no certainty that all Muslims subject to severe governmental repression are Hizb-ut-Tahir members. In Uzbekistan, where there are estimated to be 5,000 political prisoners alleged to be Hizb-ut-Tahir members, mere possession of Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature is punished by at least 10 years' in jail. Also, Muslims' rights have been violated under the pretext of combating Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In southern Kyrgyzstan, for example, teachers have told children not to say daily Muslim prayers - even at home - and banned schoolchildren from coming to lessons wearing the hijab, the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women.
9 February 2004
Six Jehovah's Witnesses are in prison for their faith, Forum 18 News Service has confirmed. These are the only known religious prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan, as against other kinds of prisoners of conscience. Forum 18 has also heard reliable reports of several Imams being held in internal exile. Five prisoners are being held for refusing compulsory military service (Turkmenistan has no alternative service provision), while the sixth - Kurban Zakirov, the longest-serving prisoner for his beliefs – has from 2000 been serving an eight year sentence. At least one prisoner has been raped homosexually, Forum 18 has learnt, and all the others have been threatened with this. Like all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities, Forum 18 knows of Jehovah's Witnesses being subject to harsh persecution, being regularly fined for meeting in private flats, and a family having its flat confiscated. Some have lost their jobs when their faith became known.
5 February 2004
All currently registered religious communities – i.e. only Sunni Muslim mosques and Russian Orthodox churches - will now have to re-register under new detailed procedures, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, Forum 18 notes that Shia Muslim mosques, Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Adventist and all other Protestant churches, Jehovah's Witness kingdom halls, Baha'i and Hare Krishna temples and Jewish synagogues will continue not being able to register, and under the new religion law all their activity is now a criminal offence – a clear breach of Turkmenistan's human rights commitments. It is very unclear why highly detailed regulations to register religious communities have been drawn up, as only a very restricted number of religious communities have ever been permitted to register. So far Forum 18 has not yet learnt of attempts to de-register existing Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox communities. However, after the previous 1996 religion law was brought in, Forum 18 learned of many Sunni Muslim communities being de-registered, as well as all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox Church communities.