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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: 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.

TURKMENISTAN: Adventists get state registration, Baha'is may be next

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.

TURKMENISTAN: Unregistered religious activity still illegal

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.

TURKMENISTAN: Jehovah's Witness prisoners threatened with death

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.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious persecution's latest disguises

In his latest attempt to disguise Turkmenistan's de facto criminalisation of religious belief, President Saparmurat Niyazov has today (13 May) revoked the de jure criminalisation of unregistered religious activity. Believers were, before the de jure criminalization, treated as de facto criminals and fined, detained, beaten, threatened, sacked from their jobs, had their homes confiscated, banished to remote parts of the country or deported in retaliation for unregistered religious activity. Niyazov has also cancelled a secret decree requiring registered religious communities to subject themselves to tight financial regulation by the state – but has imposed tight financial regulation in a different way, through an official model statute for religious communities. Forum 18 News Service has obtained a copy of this, and religious leaders in Turkmenistan have told Forum 18 that they find these restrictions unacceptable. Many prefer to continue to exist in the underground.

TURKMENISTAN: Is state registration disguised persecution?

As well as continuing to harshly persecute religious believers, Turkmenistan is also refusing to allow religious communities to see requirements the authorities insist communities must follow to be registered. Forum 18 News Service has found that amongst harsh new requirements to be imposed will be: a requirement that any worship service or other event has the prior permission of the Gengeshi (the state body controlling religion); a requirement that the full names of any financial donors be given to the Gengeshi; and a requirement that all non-Muslim religious communities pay 20 per cent of their income to the Gengeshi. Many religious communities are too frightened to lodge applications for state registration. "The last time we applied for registration was five years ago, and they went round persecuting all the people who had signed the registration application," one believer told Forum 18. "We are not prepared to go through this again."

TURKMENISTAN: Religious persecution continues

There is no slackening of religious persecution in Turkmenistan. In the last two months the authorities have, amongst other things, fired a Jehovah's Witness from his job, forced a Hindu to sign a statement renouncing his beliefs, raided religious meetings, confiscated the personal property of Baptists, fined Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses large sums of money, and the police have sexually harassed one female Jehovah's Witness. She has complained to the OSCE office in Ashgabad about the police assault on her.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious prisoners of conscience

Although it is difficult because of the level of persecution to be precise, all the religious prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan known to Forum 18 News Service are from the Jehovah's Witness and Islamic faiths. Some Baptists are currently in hiding from the danger of imprisonment for their faith as, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, they have refused on religious grounds to perform military service. The most high profile current prisoner is the former chief mufti, and Baptists have in the recent past also been imprisoned for their faith. It is also reliably believed that several other muftis have been sent into internal exile without trial.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, April 2004

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, apart from very limited freedom for Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity with a small number of registered places of worship and constant interference and control by the state. This is despite recent legal changes that in theory allow minority communities to register. All other communities - Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other Protestants, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna – are currently banned and their activity punishable under the administrative or criminal law. Religious meetings have been broken up, with raids in March on Jehovah's Witnesses and a Baha'i even as the government was proclaiming a new religious policy. Believers have been threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from their jobs, while homes used for worship and religious literature have been confiscated. Although some minority communities have sought information on how to register under the new procedures, none has so far applied to register. It remains very doubtful that Turkmenistan will in practice allow religious faiths to be practiced freely.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious communities theoretically permitted, but attacked in practice?

Despite Turkmenistan now theoretically allowing minority religious communities to get state registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that in practice attacks have been renewed against the Jehovah's Witness and Baha'i minority communities. President Saparmurat Niyazov announced the changes on 11 March, the same day that a Jehovah's Witness was arrested and pressured by officials, including a Mullah, to renounce his faith and then fired from his job. There have also been at least three raids on Jehovah's Witnesses in the capital Ashgabad and reported raids in other towns. Also, a Baha'i has had his home raided and been pressured to renounce his faith. Believers from the country's banned minority faiths – including Catholics, a variety of Protestant groups, Shia Muslims, Jews, Adventists, Pentecostal and Armenian Apostolic Christians, Hare Krishna devotees, Jehovah's Witnesses and Baha'i – are unsure whether it is apply for state registration. Although some Protestants are optimistic about the situation improving, the NSM secret police told an arrested Baha'i that the new law "applies only to Sunni Islam and the Orthodox Church, while such dubious groups as yours will be thoroughly checked out with the aim of preventing any possible conflicts." And on 29 March President Niyazov banned Muslims from registering new mosques.

TURKMENISTAN: Muslims barred from opening new mosques

Turkmenistan's largest religious community, the Muslims, appear to have been barred from benefiting from the promised easing of the harsh registration restrictions that have prevented most of the country's religious communities from registering since 1997. "Do not build any more mosques," President Saparmurat Niyazov told officials of the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs on 29 March, insisting that its officials must continue to appoint all mullahs and control mosque funds. More than half the 250 registered mosques were stripped of their legal status in 1997, and only 140 have registration today. Shia mosques appear likely to remain banned. Forum 18 News Service has learnt that the only other current legal faith, the Russian Orthodox Church, is planning to try to register new parishes in the wake of this month's presidential decree and amendments to the religion law easing the restrictions.

TURKMENISTAN: "Shall we trust the president?" religious groups ask

Doubts have been expressed about the genuineness of this month's surprise presidential lifting of harsh restrictions on registering religious communities. But five groups – the Church of Christ, the Adventists, the New Apostolic Church, the Catholic Church and the Baha'i faith - have since the decree sought information about how to apply for registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Other religious communities remain wary. At present only Russian Orthodox and some Muslim communities have registration, and these communities must now reregister. Unregistered religious activity is – contrary to international law – a criminal offence. The presidential decree will not affect the unregistered Baptists, who are persecuted for refusing on principle to seek state registration. Meanwhile the former chief mufti remains on a 22 years jail sentence, apparently for opposing tight presidential control of the Muslim community, and at least six Jehovah's Witnesses are in jail for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.