TURKMENISTAN: Six religious prisoners of conscience free, but three remain
Six Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience have been freed this month, however, two other Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience, arrested in May, and the former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, serving a twenty-two year prison sentence on charges the Turkmen authorities have refused to reveal, are known by Forum 18 News Service to be still in jail. The freed prisoners were routinely beaten during their imprisonment and pressured to renounce their faith, and in April two were threatened with death. It is believed that prisoners, including the former chief mufti, were beaten up by a special department of the Interior Ministry, in order to intimidate the prisoners before a visit by OSCE ambassadors in mid-May. Religious minorities have told Forum 18 of continuing low-level police harassment, including raids, threats and confiscations of literature.
Religious minorities have told Forum 18 of continuing low-level police harassment, including raids, threats and confiscations of literature.
A Jehovah's Witness elder who preferred not to be named told Forum 18 from the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat] that Masharipov and Tuvakov were arrested in their home town of Dashoguz [Dashhowuz] in north-eastern Turkmenistan for refusing to conduct compulsory military service. It is the first time they have served sentences on these charges. "We don't know if they will be freed as well," the elder told Forum 18 on 25 June.
He said the legal status of the six freed prisoners remains unclear. "They were released – that's all. No-one said if the charges against them have been withdrawn." The freed prisoners are five conscientious objectors - Aleksandr Matveyev, Rinat Babadjanov, Shohrat Mitogorov, Ruslan Nasyrov and Rozymamed Satlykov – and another Jehovah's Witness, Kurban Zakirov, serving an eight-year sentence on charges of attacking a camp guard, charges the Jehovah's Witnesses say were fabricated. The elder said Zakirov had to be treated in hospital after his release, but is now home again with his family in the town of Turkmenabad (formerly Charjou).
The imprisoned conscientious objectors were routinely beaten during their imprisonment and pressured to renounce their faith, while in April two of them were threatened with death while in labour camp in the eastern town of Seydi (see F18News 19 May 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=323).
Former chief mufti Nasrullah was reportedly severely beaten in prison in May in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi [Türkmenbashy] (formerly Krasnovodsk). The Central Asian service of Deutsche Welle, quoting an anonymous source in the law enforcement agencies, reported on 24 May that that evening officials of a special department of the Interior Ministry beat up prisoners in five cells of Turkmenbashi prison, among them Nasrullah, adding that he "suffered significantly".
Deutsche Welle believed the beatings meted out to the prisoners in Turkmenbashi in May were designed to intimidate them ahead of a tour of Turkmenistan's prisons by OSCE ambassadors. The exile Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation has reported that the OMON police special forces have a separate subdivision for beating prisoners, adding that in penal colonies and prisons such "intimidation raids" are common.
An exiled politician told Forum 18 he believes Nasrullah fell out of favour with President Niyazov in 2002 after publishing a booklet on how Muslims should pray. The president was said to have been incensed that anyone apart from himself should be giving instructions to the people.
Although the 56-year-old Nasrullah was sentenced at a closed hearing by an Ashgabad court on 2 March, the Turkmen authorities have refused to give any details about the crimes they allege he committed and which articles of the criminal code he was sentenced under or to release the text of the verdict (see F18News 8 March 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=271).
Among those pressing for such information is the United States government, but the US representative to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) complained that the Turkmen government had failed to respond. "His trial, which was held without the presence of impartial observers, conflicts with Turkmenistan's OSCE commitments to due process in court proceedings," Douglas Davidson told the OSCE Permanent Council on 20 May. "To date we have not had a response to our request for information about this case, so we should like to take this opportunity to renew this request to our Turkmen colleagues." One month later, the Turkmen authorities are still refusing to make public the verdict or the charges against Nasrullah.
In mid-May, President Niyazov stripped a number of senior officials who have fallen out of favour, including Nasrullah, of their state awards.
One former senior Turkmen official, Khudaiberdy Orazov, explained that he believed it was Nasrullah's booklet on how Muslims should pray that precipitated the breakdown of relations between the then chief mufti and Niyazov. "After Nasrullah and others published some 10,000 copies of the booklet 'Instructions to Muslims', which were distributed in mosques, the president was angry," Orazov, who left Turkmenistan in April 2001 and now heads the opposition party Watan (Motherland) from exile in Western Europe, told Forum 18. "There was nothing political in the booklet, but Niyazov was angry that someone else was giving orders to the people." Orazov said the president shouted at Nasrullah at a public meeting that everything people need to know is in his own book, the Ruhnama.
Citing his own private sources, Orazov claimed that when Niyazov summoned officials of the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs to a meeting in late August 2002, he told them then that they should remove all copies of the booklet from mosques and should also find a replacement for Nasrullah as chief mufti. "Niyazov didn't take measures against him immediately," Orazov maintained. "He wanted people to forget and then remove him." Nasrullah was not removed as chief mufti and deputy chairman of the Gengeshi until January 2003, after the mysterious assassination attempt of November 2002 in which the authorities later claimed Nasrullah had been involved.
Orazov claimed that after Nasrullah, who is an ethnic Uzbek, fled to Uzbekistan in about May 2003, he was given assurances of his safety and returned to his home town of Dashoguz after a couple of weeks in Uzbekistan. However, he and his immediate family were put under close house arrest and he was regularly summoned to the State Security Ministry. Orazov said Niyazov finally gave the order for his arrest in December 2003 after many people had appealed for Nasrullah and praised him as a respected leader. Orazov added that Nasrullah's wife and family remain under surveillance at their home in Dashoguz.
Another exiled former Turkmen official claimed to Forum 18 in May that after Nasrullah was sentenced, devout Muslims who respected him travelled to Turkmenbashi and prayed outside the prison where they believed he was being held. "They went there as if on pilgrimage to a holy place," the former official declared.
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3 June 2004
Seventh Day Adventists have confirmed that, on Monday 1 June, they were given state registration, the first religious group to be registered under the new state registration rules, and Baha'is are likely to be confirmed later today (3 June) as the next group to be registered. Other religious groups have expressed cautious optimism that they too may be registered, however, the state registration changes do not affect groups which refuse registration on principle, such as the "initsiativniki" Baptists. Unregistered religious activity remains, against international law, a de facto criminal offence, and it remains unclear how far newly-registered religious groups will be permitted to operate without being persecuted, or without the imposition of the heavy state control imposed on Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church, the only groups to be state registered before 1 June.
24 May 2004
Unregistered religious activity remains illegal, an official of the Adalat (Fairness or Justice) Ministry has confirmed, despite a presidential decree abolishing criminal penalties for worshipping without state approval. "If people act without registration they will be fined," Murat Muradov, a specialist at the ministry, told Forum 18 News Service. The ban on unregistered activity in the religion law has not been amended and Article 205 of the Administrative Code, which spells out fines of up to ten times the minimum monthly wage for leading or even taking part in unregistered worship services, remains in force. Muradov denied any harassment of believers in Turkmenistan, describing those who had told Forum 18 of such harassment as "sick". More than ten weeks after the president reduced the number of members required to register a community from 500 to five, no new communities have yet been able to register.
19 May 2004
Two of the five Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned in labour camp in the town of Seydi have been threatened with death, reportedly in the second half of April, with the full knowledge of the camp administration, Jehovah's Witnesses report. "We take these threats seriously," one told Forum 18 News Service. They plead for international attention, fearing for the safety of the five - Aleksandr Matveyev, Rinat Babadjanov, Shohrat Mitogorov, Ruslan Nasyrov and Rozymamed Satlykov. Jehovah's Witnesses say the five are regularly beaten, pressured to renounce their faith and adopt Islam, take the oath of allegiance to the president and to agree to do compulsory military service. Family and friends have been unable to visit their prisoners since early April.