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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

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 ban list, which the authorities use against people they dislike. No official has been willing to discuss the case with Forum 18.

TURKMENISTAN: Conscientious objector convicted as criminal

A Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector in Turkmenistan, Zafar Abdullaev, has been given a two-year suspended sentence for refusing to do compulsory military service because of his religious beliefs, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Abdullaev's criminal conviction comes despite calls from the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief for the state to stop treating conscientious objection as a criminal offence and introduce a genuinely civilian alternative service. However, Turkmenistan's most senior human rights official, Shirin Akhmedova, has totally rejected these appeals. Instead, she pointed to the country's Constitution, which describes compulsory military service as a "sacred duty". In addition to his criminal record, it is unknown if Abdullaev faces other restrictions during his sentence, such as on his freedom of movement. There are two other known conscientious objectors currently serving sentences in Turkmenistan. Both, Begench Shakhmuradov and Vladimir Golosenko, are Jehovah's Witnesses.

UZBEKISTAN: Cleric takes part in police raid on religious community

Police in Uzbekistan "decided to invite" a Russian Orthodox priest to take part in a raid on a group of Baptists, a police officer has told Forum 18 News Service. Father Igor Skorik of Almalyk's Assumption of the Mother of God Church pressured Baptists not to attend unregistered worship and to come to his church instead, church members told Forum 18. The use of a cleric of one religious community to pressure members of another in cooperation with the authorities is a disturbing new development. The raid on a private home was led by Major Urazali Kholbekov, from the Tashkent Regional Criminal Investigation and Counter-Terrorism Department, who apparently arranged for Fr Skorik to take part in the raid. Fr Igor claimed he did not violate the law by taking part. "I was not there to check up on the Baptists but to just advise them," he insisted. Local Baptists point out that the raid and Fr Skorik's participation violates both Uzbek law and international human rights law. Church members were arrested, and police claimed Baptists were "at risk of danger in the case of a terrorist act which could be carried out by people in their home".

UZBEKISTAN: State still stops Muslims making haj pilgrimage

Uzbekistan is continuing to restrict the numbers of haj pilgrims to 5,000 people, or one fifth of those who could potentially go, Forum 18 News Service has found. This seriously limits the number of Muslims who can perform this obligation of their faith. All pilgrims need approval from local authorities, the NSS secret police and other national authorities, and are strictly controlled – including isolation from foreigners – on pilgrimage. Forum 18 has been told of an unwritten state instruction that pilgrims must be aged over 45. The head of a regional state Religious Affairs Committee denied this, illustrating his denial by saying that his region had sent "a 32 year old man" on pilgrimage. However, he did not answer when Forum 18 asked why there were very few young people on the pilgrimage. The state also charges pilgrims many times the minimum monthly wage to make the haj. An Uzbek human rights defender, Surat Ikramov, pointed out to Forum 18 that this plus the bribes demanded "makes it impossible for the majority to go on haj."

TURKMENISTAN: Fines, beatings, threats of rape and psychiatric incarceration

Bilbil Kulyyeva was threatened with incarceration in a psychiatric hospital if she did not stop complaining about punishments imposed for following her faith as a Jehovah's Witness, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Officials threatened to put her two small children in a children's home and deport the other two. In June, police threatened another female Jehovah's Witness with rape. She was held overnight and freed the following day only after she had been forced to clean the police station and water plants outside. Four Jehovah's Witnesses were beaten and fined in May after refusing police and MSS secret police pressure to declare: "I am a Muslim." Police and the MSS secret police often work closely with local imams to intimidate Jehovah's Witnesses as well as Protestant Christians. The Jehovah's Witnesses lodged a formal registration application in August, but have had no response. Forum 18 could find no official prepared to explain why Jehovah's Witnesses and members of other faiths face harassment.

TURKMENISTAN: Why can't believers freely enter, leave or remain in the country?

As in previous years it appears that the government will allow only 188 Muslims to go on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca this year directly from Turkmenistan. "Only those on the official list who have been approved by the Cabinet of Ministers will go to Mecca on the one aeroplane," one source told Forum 18 News Service from Ashgabad. Would-be pilgrims must present an application form to their imam, who hands it to the regional authorities who pass it on to Ashgabad, a Muslim told Forum 18 from Turkmenbashi. He said two or three pilgrims are travelling this year from the city, while the waiting list is long. Meanwhile, the daughter of a Baptist pastor expelled from Turkmenistan in 2007 was herself obliged to leave in early November, despite being married to a Turkmen citizen. By contrast, relatives of another Baptist former prisoner were banned from leaving for Russia in the summer when they arrived at the airport. The new Moscow-based Russian Orthodox bishop for Turkmenistan is planning to make his first ever visit to the country.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, August 2008

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service has found continuing violations by the state of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Unregistered religious activity continues – in defiance of international human rights agreements – to be attacked. The government tries to control the extremely limited religious activity it permits, which often does not - even for registered religious groups - include the right to worship. Promises to respect human rights after the accession of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov have not stopped the state's continuing actions to deny freedom of thought, conscience and belief to peaceful Turkmen citizens of all faiths, including Muslims, Russian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics, Hare Krishna devotees and Baha'is. Officials appear to have no expectation that they will be held accountable for violating fundamental human rights such as religious freedom.

TURKMENISTAN: Will the state respect everyone's right to conscientious objection?

While several Jehovah's Witnesses in Turkmenistan are serving sentences for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, officials are considering whether to allow an alternative service possibility, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, it is unclear whether a concrete proposal exists. The latest Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector to be sentenced is Vladimir Golosenko, given two years forced labour in February 2008. While not imprisoned, twenty percent of his wages are taken by the state. Bayram Ashirgeldyyev, serving an 18-month suspended sentence imposed in July 2007, told Forum 18 that "I want an alternative service to be introduced – not just for myself but so that others don't suffer as I have suffered." The authorities have refused to give him the official stamp he needs for a job. "They promised to give it to me months ago but haven't," he complained. "I can't work, I can't leave Ashgabad and have to be at home by early evening each day." Religious believers are sceptical about whether legal changes will stop the authorities attacking people exercising their right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

COMMENTARY: Why can't all religious communities have places of worship?

One of the biggest problems faced by religious believers in Turkmenistan is not being able to freely maintain public places of worship, a Turkmen Protestant from a region far from the capital argues in a personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. "You cannot build, buy, or securely rent such property, let alone put up a notice outside saying 'This is a place of worship'," the Protestant comments. "All kinds of obstructions are imposed, whether through rules or just in practice," the commentary continues, noting that "whenever officials raid our meetings the first thing they ask is: 'Where's your registration certificate?' The government likes to be able to say to outsiders 'We have registration' and show them communities in Ashgabad. But people don't look at what we experience in places away from the capital, where we have no hope of registration." The Turkmen concludes that "without freedom to meet for worship it is impossible to claim that we have freedom of religion or belief."

TURKMENISTAN: "It is our duty to check up on religious organisations"

Some ten officials from the local Religious Affairs Department, the police, secret police, Justice Ministry and Tax Ministry raided a Bible class held by the Greater Grace Protestant church in a private flat in the capital Ashgabad on 11 April. Asked the reason for the check-up, Murad Aksakov of the local administration told Forum 18 News Service they wanted to find out how many people attended the classes, who those people were, and whether everything was in order with the church's documents. Pastor Vladimir Tolmachev told Forum 18 he was warned that the church was not allowed to teach its own members without permission from the government's Religious Affairs Committee, even though its officially-recognised Charter allows this. Officials told Tolmachev he would receive an official warning. Further such warnings could lead to the church's registration being stripped from it, rendering all its activities illegal. In an illustration of the problems even registered religious communities face, the church has no building of its own and has already had to move its services ten times this year.

TURKMENISTAN: What needs to change, the Religion Law or government actions?

Turkmenistan has promised to amend its Religion Law, but work on this has not started, Forum 18 News Service has found. Shirin Akhmedova, Director of the state National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, claimed the process of amending the Law would be "transparent" and would involve "international experts." However, she said that the views of local people would be listened to only after Forum 18 specifically asked about this. She refused to say what parts of the Law are likely to be amended, when a draft Law may be produced, or if there would be public discussion. She insisted that the country has a "new government" and denied that religious believers face any problems in practising their faith. Religious believers have told Forum 18 that no fundamental changes in religious policy have yet taken place. Many have stated that restrictions they face include not being able to: build or open places of worship; publish or import religious literature; travel abroad (including on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca); share their beliefs; or – for communities the authorities particularly dislike - gain legal status.

TURKMENISTAN: Another conscientious objector sentenced, another police raid

Ashirgeldy Taganov is the sixth conscientious objector to be sentenced in Turkmenistan in recent months for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. His fellow Jehovah's Witnesses complain that the court procedure was "hasty" and "careless" and that Taganov could not present his case in full. He was sentenced to an 18 month suspended sentence, which imposes harsh restrictions. Offenders cannot leave Ashgabad and must be back home each evening by 8 pm. They must also find work. "This is very difficult as there is no work available," another religious conscientious objector told Forum 18. Meanwhile, a Baptist congregation has been raided by police, who confiscated hymn books, a Bible concordance, books of poetry and 47 CD recordings of sermons and hymns. The Deputy Chair of the government's Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs conceded to Forum 18 that any such raid would be "unpleasant", but said he had heard nothing about it. He then put the phone down.