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12 February 2010

TURKMENISTAN: Work not even begun on new Religion Law

Shemshat Atajanova of the government's National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights has admitted that work on a proposed new Religion Law has not even begun. "We were working on the NGO Law first," she told Forum 18 News Service. She then admitted that the proposed NGO Law has not even gone to Parliament yet. Both were among the "priority" laws marked for "reform" in January 2008. Religious believers told Forum 18 they remain sceptical that any legal changes will end the violations of religious freedom. "Nothing good for you will come from the new Religion Law," one Protestant cited Nurmukhamed Gurbanov, deputy head of the government's Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs, as having told them back in 2008. Nor has any non-Muslim community been able to gain legal status since September 2007. "We don't understand why they won't do it," members of the Path of Faith Baptist church in Dashoguz – which applied in 2005 – complained to Forum 18. The church was raided during worship in December 2009 because it is unregistered.

3 February 2010

TURKMENISTAN: Sentences on conscientious objectors a "state secret"?

The City Court in Dashoguz – which sentenced 18-year-old Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Navruz Nasyrlayev to two years' imprisonment in December 2009 – refused to discuss his case with Forum 18 News Service. Asked if it is a state secret, a woman at the court responded: "Yes." His case brings to five the number of Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned for refusing compulsory military service in Turkmenistan, with a further three serving non-custodial sentences. Five of the eight sentences were handed down by Dashoguz City Court. Nasyrlayev's imprisonment comes as the Turkmen government's January 2010 report to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee made no reference to any right to conduct alternative civilian service.

2 February 2010

TURKMENISTAN: Exit bans, haj ban, visa denials part of state religious isolation policy

Taken off an aeroplane in the capital Ashgabad just before departure in October 2007, Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev has been unable to leave Turkmenistan since. Like many who are on the exit blacklist, the Migration Service refuses to tell him why. He told Forum 18 News Service the ban could only have been imposed to punish him for his religious activity. The exit blacklist is part of the Turkmen government's long-standing policy of trying to isolate religious communities within the country from their fellow-believers abroad, which has included expelling legally resident foreigners who engaged in religious activity. In 2009 it banned even the small number of Muslims allowed to go on the haj pilgrimage to leave for Mecca, citing health grounds. One foreign Protestant told Forum 18 the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs refused to authorise a planned visit to fellow believers in Turkmenistan in 2009. Local people who are able to travel abroad face routine confiscation of religious literature on their return, which is often destroyed.

1 February 2010

TURKMENISTAN: Worship without state registration "illegal"

Turkmenistan continues to raid Protestants meeting for worship in different parts of the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. One such raid was led by Turkmenistan's former Chief Mufti, Rovshen Allaberdiev, who is now imam of Dashoguz Region as well as being the senior regional Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs official. Allaberdiev and accompanying officials confiscated Christian books during the raid, including personal Bibles. All 22 people present were taken to a local government building, questioned and pressured to sign statements not to attend the church in future. "Some people signed and now some are afraid to come to services, especially new people," one church member told Forum 18. "We were told it is illegal to meet without state registration. But we told them we have already applied for registration and are waiting for a response." In a separate raid in another region, police accused a pastor of violating the Religion Law by praying at a birthday party.

19 November 2009

COMMENTARY: The European Court of Human Rights - Out of step on conscientious objection

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR) has recently made a very dangerous judgement for freedom of religion or belief in the Bayatyan v. Armenia case which puts it out of step with the international standards on conscientious objection to military service and with the Council of Europe's own human rights agenda, notes Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The Court, apparently unaware of the recent parallel jurisprudence under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found no violation of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the imprisonment of a Jehovah's Witness for his refusal on grounds of conscientious objection to perform military service, or the subsequent increase in the sentence, which had been partly justified by his reasons for refusal. Brett argues that it is vital that the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR agrees to hear the appeal in the Bayatyan case, as it alone can overturn the precedent which this will otherwise set for future ECtHR cases.

13 October 2009

TURKMENISTAN: State officials' dual role as clergy to suppress freedom of religion or belief

Some state officials in Turkmenistan's Gengesh (Council) for Religious Affairs, which restricts freedom of religion or belief for all, have a dual role as clergy within religious communities. This was most recently demonstrated in late September 2009, Forum 18 News Service notes. Most if not all the senior Muslim clergy given new appointments then were also officials in the Gengesh. The new Chief Mufti, Gurban Haitliev, has a staff position at the central Gengesh, and was previously head of the Lebap regional Gengesh as well as the region's Chief Imam. Four of the officials appointed to head regional branches of the Gengesh were also appointed as new regional Chief Imams, officials have told Forum 18. In their dual role as Gengesh officials and religious community leaders they work with other state agencies such as the MSS secret police. Meanwhile, residents of the capital Ashgabat have told Forum 18 that the University's [Islamic] Theology Department building has been demolished without warning. Gengesh Deputy Chair Nurmukhamed Gurbanov told Forum 18 that "there are no problems in Turkmenistan."

30 September 2009

TURKMENISTAN: Two more Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors imprisoned

Two young Jehovah's Witnesses have joined two other Jehovah's Witnesses already incarcerated in the labour camp in Seydi after being sentenced in July for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. Shadurdi Uchetov, who is 21, received the maximum two-year term, while 19-year-old Akmurat Egendurdiev received an 18-month term. Both had their appeals rejected in their absence. Jehovah's Witnesses complain three of the four have been obstructed from lodging further appeals. Egendurdiev was tried after being summoned to Dashoguz town administration, where "three elderly men tried to persuade him to change his mind" about his refusal to serve in the army, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Vyacheslav Kalataevsky, a former Baptist inmate of the Seydi camp, told Forum 18 it is in the desert and close to several chemical works, and conditions are not easy. "It is like something from the Middle Ages."

2 June 2009

TURKMENISTAN: Conscientious objectors jailed

Two brothers - Sakhetmurad and Mukhammedmurad Annamamedov – who object on grounds of conscience to Turkmenistan's compulsory military service have had two year suspended sentences changed to jail terms, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The two Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience are among five known conscientious objectors. It is unknown whether the remaining three will also now be jailed. Six months into their suspended sentences the Annamamedovs were called to their local military conscription office, allegedly to be given an amnesty. Three hours after arriving at the office they were jailed for the full two years, with their terms to expire in May 2011. Their father was denied access to the court, and the brothers and family were told that they would never be given a copy of the court judgement. Forum 18 has been unable to gain any comment from the authorities on these prisoners of conscience. Meanwhile, the authorities have not yet made further moves against Baptist leader and former prisoner of conscience Shageldy Atakov.

12 May 2009

TURKMENISTAN: "I want to know if I can import religious books"

Turkmenistan continues to impose strict censorship on religious literature brought into the country, and copies data from personal computers, Forum 18 News Service has been told. "Which commission decides this?" a Protestant complained, commenting that "they don't have the right to interfere in my own private life." Officials always point to an unspecified "commission" which determines what literature is acceptable. "But who checks the commission which examines the literature?" the Protestant asked. Ethnic Turkmens appear to be more more likely to have material confiscated than ethnic Russians. Frustration has also been expressed to Forum 18 about the impossibility of printing religious literature. No state official has been willing to explain why religious censorship exists, or who is responsible for it. Shirin Akhmedova, Head of the government's National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, claimed to the UN Human Rights Council that freedom of expression exists because of the Constitution. This claim, however, is contradicted by the experience of Turkmenistan's citizens.

11 May 2009

TURKMENISTAN: Old "offences" still used to punish current religious activity

Former prisoner of conscience Shageldy Atakov, is the latest victim of Turkmenistan's use of old "offences" to punish current activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Officials under orders from the central authorities are now threatening to confiscate Atakov's property, if he does not pay an enormous sum he is alleged by the authorities to have swindled an individual out of in 1995. "It is all being done because I am a Christian - I don't owe anyone anything," Atakov insisted to Forum 18. His fellow Baptists have repeatedly backed his statements that he is completely innocent of all the alleged offences. Atakov was shown documents in court showing that the latest moves were ordered from the capital Ashgabad. He pledged not to allow the authorities to seize his family's property. "They'll completely empty the house. They don't have the right to do this." Atakov, his wife Artygul Atakova and their children are also on an exit blacklist, which the authorities use against people they dislike. No official has been willing to discuss the case with Forum 18.

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