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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: Government severely restricts Haj numbers

Turkmenistan continues to limit haj pilgrimage numbers to fewer than five per cent of the potential pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has found, despite the requirement in Islam for able-bodied Muslims who can afford to do so to make the pilgrimage. This year, the Government is only allowing 188 pilgrims, despite an apparent quota from the Saudi authorities of more than 4,500 pilgrims. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from either the Turkmen Government or the Saudi authorities why the number of haj pilgrims is restricted. But Forum 18 has been told that "all those allowed to go are first checked out, presumably by the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of State Security secret police." At least one law-enforcement officer is said to accompany Turkmen pilgrims to Mecca. Unlike both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose government also imposes restrictions, other countries in the region do not restrict pilgrim numbers, but local Muslims often complain about the way the selection process operates.

TURKMENISTAN: JW held in psychiatric hospital and Baptists raided by Imam with officials

A Jehovah's Witness, Aga Soyegov, is being held in a psychiatric hospital in Turkmenistan because of his refusal on religious grounds to undertake military service, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Two other religious prisoners – a Hare Krishna devotee and the former Chief Mufti – are also known to Forum 18. Soyegov has been diagnosed as being healthy, but is still being held in the psychiatric hospital. Raids are continuing against Baptists in Turkmenistan, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses. On Saturday 17 December, a prayer meeting of a Turkmen-speaking registered Baptist church in Deynau was raided by the MSS secret police, the ordinary police, a Public Prosecutor and a local Imam. Officials then searched the house without a search warrant – which is illegal in Turkmenistan – for religious literature, as well as threatening and detaining those present. Two Christians had their personal Bibles confiscated and the church in Deynau continues to be put "under strong pressure."

TURKMENISTAN: Secret police ban church renting hall?

After four weeks of holding services in a rented hall in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat], the registered Greater Grace Protestant church has been banned from holding meetings in state-owned premises, it is thought on the initiative of the MSS secret police. "This was the first time we could meet together as a church for many years," church members told Forum 18 News Service. "Now we've had to try to find a private venue." Many difficulties now face the church in overcoming this problem. At a state-sponsored meeting for religious communities, officials – included the Deputy Foreign Minister, the Deputy Justice Minister and the deputy head of the state Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs – made it clear that registered religious communities cannot either rent publicly-owned premises or meet in private homes. Some religious communities are able to meet, but Forum 18 has been told that, outside the capital, "local authorities in other towns just do what they like."

TURKMENISTAN: Hare Krishna prisoner of conscience to be moved

The second known religious prisoner of conscience in Turkmenistan, Hare Krishna devotee Cheper Annaniyazova, is to be moved to the country's only women's prison, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "This is a long way from her home in Ashgabad and will make it difficult for people to visit her," Forum 18 was told. "Besides, it is in a closed border zone and anyone wanting to visit will need a special permit." Annaniyazova was sentenced in November to seven years in jail on three charges, one of which was not made public. The extra sentence imposed in the wake of the accusation was likewise not made public. The judge in Annaniyazova's case refused to give her lawyer a copy of the written verdict, or even to let the lawyer see it, which one source told Forum 18 may have been a deliberate attempt to prevent a legal appeal. It is thought within Turkmenistan that the seven year jail sentence was imposed to intimidate the Hare Krishna community.

TURKMENISTAN: "Rape these women," police chief orders

Violence by officials against religious minorities appears to be routine in Turkmenistan. Two of the most recent cases known to Forum 18 News Service are assaults on two female Jehovah's Witnesses, Durdygul Ereshova and Annajemal Tuyliyeva, who were beaten by a police chief in the capital, Ashgabad, and threatened with rape. Although they were not raped, they were maltreated for several days before being freed, Tuyliyeva having a ring stolen by police, whilst Ereshova had her passport confiscated and is being threatened with internal deportation to a remote part of Turkmenistan. The duty officer at the police station where these assaults happened – who would not give his name - merely laughed at Forum 18's questions about the maltreatment and put the phone down. As Jehovah's Witnesses commented to Forum 18, "these officers are tolerated and even supported by higher authorities, such as judges, prosecutor's offices, duty police officers, district police officers, and city administration officials."

TURKMENISTAN: Hare Krishna devotee jailed for seven years

Turkmenistan has today [17 November] jailed a Hare Krishna devotee, Cheper Annaniyazova, for seven years on charges of illegally leaving the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Before being sentenced, she was compulsorily detained in a psychiatric hospital. "Cheper tried to get an exit visa to go to Kazakhstan to stay in the temple in Almaty, but was refused," a source close to the Hare Krishna community told Forum 18. "She went anyway, crossing the border to Uzbekistan." Despite a claimed abolition of exit visas, Turkmenistan is to Forum 18's knowledge preventing three religious believers - two Protestants and a Hare Krishna devotee – from leaving the country. Forum 18's source insists that the heavy sentence was imposed at the behest of the MSS secret police to intimidate the Hare Krishna community. Turkmenistan also has the religious prisoner of conscience with the longest jail sentence in the former Soviet Union, former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah who is on a 22 year jail sentence.

TURKMENISTAN: Border guards ban believers from leaving

Despite the claimed abolition of a requirement for permission to leave Turkmenistan, religious believers are still being denied permission to travel from the country. The latest cases known to Forum 18 News Service are two Protestants and one Hare Krishna devotee, who are being persistenly denied permission to travel. The Protestants were not on the official exit ban list, one source told Forum 18, but were stopped after border guards asked why they were travelling abroad and they said they were going to study the Bible in a neighbouring country. The Hare Krishna devotee, who was intending to visit a temple in Russia and meet fellow devotees, "doesn't know why he's on the ban list", another source told Forum 18. Meanwhile, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, Asma Jahangir, has this year again requested the Turkmen government to be allowed to visit the country – so far in vain. In situ visits are a "crucial aspect of the mandate on freedom of religion and belief", she insisted, expressing concern at Turkmenistan's failure to respond.

TURKMENISTAN: More pressure against Islamic religious practise

Turkmenistan appears to be increasing pressure against Islam religious practise, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A human rights activist has told Forum 18 of increased moves against practising male Muslims visiting mosques in northern Turkmenistan, including two arrests. The MSS secret police officers have made imams hang a list of mosque-goers above the doors to their mosques, and now only those whose names are on the list are allowed to visit that mosque. Turkmenistan's deputy mufti, Atash Zamedov, refused to answer Forum 18's questions about lists of names hung over mosque entrances. Also, after the reduction of student numbers and dismissal of foreign Turkish lecturers at the Muslim theological faculty in Ashgabad, Forum 18 has learnt that all local Turkmen teachers and technical staff as well have been dismissed and replaced with new appointees.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, October 2005

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, including denials of the right of legally registered religious communities to worship. In a typical example of this approach - which other religious minorities have also experienced - police raided a legally registered Baptist church in northern Turkmenistan, claiming that "individuals can only believe alone on their own at home." Unregistered religious activity continues – in defiance of international human rights agreements – to be attacked. There has been an increase in attempts to impose a state religious personality cult of President Niyazov on all Turkmen citizens, with mosques being particularly targeted. Turkmenistan continues to fail to implement its international human rights commitments, and also continues to take direct governmental action to deny religious freedom to peaceful Turkmen citizens.

TURKMENISTAN: Jehovah's Witness challenges 15 day imprisonment

Jehovah's Witness Konstantin Vlaskin, beaten by police and imprisoned for 15 days in July on charges of hooliganism, is challenging the basis of his conviction. "The police claim I caused a disturbance, but this is untrue," he told Forum 18 News Service from Turkmenabad. "They wanted to cover up the fact they were punishing me for my religious activity." After the prosecutor's office upheld the charge on 31 August, Vlaskin pledged to take his case higher. He has since been threatened with a fine. After bringing in a local mullah, police insulted three other Jehovah's Witnesses in the city for "abandoning their [Muslim] faith", while another was beaten and accused of being a terrorist. In Ashgabad, Dmitry Krivets' vital 10-day medical treatment at a clinic was cut short after two days after its director received a phone call that he was a "sectarian". A Jehovah's Witness pensioner was threatened with deportation to a desert region of the country. Turkmenistan's Jehovah's Witnesses have not applied for official registration, saying they are still not clear whether it would be any help in being able to practice their faith freely. Registered faiths regularly suffer raids on religious services.

TURKMENISTAN: Police claim "individuals can only believe alone"

Anti-terrorist police raided last Sunday's (14 August) worship service of a registered Baptist church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. After the service, Forum 18 was told, police questioned church members, confiscating all Turkmen-language Bibles and Hymnbooks. The police took particular interest in children at the service, and were disappointed they were in the service with parental permission. Next day, church leaders were summoned for "more thorough interrogation," and told that the Baptist Church's national state registration is "not valid for northern Turkmenistan." This claim has been made elsewhere in the country, and Baptists strongly dispute it. Police pressured church leaders to sign a declaration that the church will not meet until it had state registration. "We met for worship before 'your registration' existed, and will continue to meet now we have registration, even if you did not recognise it. And we will continue to meet in future as our faith does not depend on registration," church leaders told police.

KAZAKHSTAN: New "national security" law contradicts itself

Kazakhstan's new "national security" requirement that all religious activity must be registered contradicts itself, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Both Professor Roman Podoprigora, a legal expert, and Aleksandr Klyushev, of the Association of Religious Organisations in Kazakhstan, note that Article 6-2 of the amended Religion Law, in Professor Podoprigora's words, "says that formal registration [or notification] is adequate, which directly contradicts Articles 4 and 9 of the same law, which says that juridical registration is compulsory!" Klyushev thinks that this is a legal loophole, and Professor Podoprigora believes that the contradiction arose because parliament did not notice it. Ninel Fokina, of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, argues strongly that the new Law is against the Kazakh Constitution. Religious minorities continue to voice deep anxiety. "It's as if they were playing chess with us," Valentina Volkova of the Hare Krishna community told Forum 18.