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TURKMENISTAN: Maximum prison sentence for latest conscientious objector

Zafar Abdullaev, a 24-year-old Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector, is the latest prisoner of conscience to be given a prison sentence for refusing Turkmenistan's military service, which is compulsory for all young men. He was given the maximum two-year prison term on 6 March at Dashoguz City Court, the court chancellery told Forum 18 News Service. He had already served a two-year suspended sentence on the same charges. Four other Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector prisoners of conscience are serving prison sentences, while a sixth objector is serving a suspended sentence. Another Jehovah's Witness prisoner of conscience is in jail for charges unrelated to compulsory military service. Abdullaev's imprisonment came the same month that the UN Human Rights Committee called on Turkmenistan to free imprisoned conscientious objectors, end their prosecution and introduce an alternative service. It also called among other things for an end to restrictions on exercising freedom of religion and belief without state permission, religious education and the import of religious literature.

TURKMENISTAN: Four fines for Bibles, prisoner transferred

After the local police officer in Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabad found Bibles in the possessions of three guests at a local Protestant's home, all four were taken to the government's Council for Religious Affairs for questioning, then held for an hour in an overcrowded detention cell, before being taken to court, Protestants told Forum 18 News Service. Although the judge refused to try them without proper documentation, they were brought back and fined by the same judge a week later for "violation of the law on religious organisations". Meanwhile, in the wake of his four year prison sentence handed down in February, Jehovah's Witness Vladimir Nuryllayev has been transferred to the isolated desert prison of Ovadan-Depe, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. But he is not in the high-security unit but the manual labour section, mainly working in the kitchens. His fellow Jehovah's Witnesses – who insist he has been punished because of his faith - hope he will be included in the amnesty likely to be called for Constitution Day on 18 May.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, March 2012

Ahead of the examination of Turkmenistan's record at the UN Human Rights Committee, Forum 18 News Service notes that freedom of religion or belief in Turkmenistan, and other intertwined human rights, remain highly restricted. Among systematic violations noted in Forum 18's religious freedom survey are: prisoners of conscience including conscientious objectors jailed for exercising freedom of religion or belief, who face beatings and other maltreatment; prisoners' severely limited religious freedom; lack of fair trials and due legal process; state control of religious leaders and communities; racial discrimination; severe restrictions on religious education and sharing beliefs, including banning women from studying academic theology in the country; a registration system apparently designed to impose state control; a ban on unregistered religious activity, and great difficulty in those who want it acquiring registration; raids on both registered and unregistered groups; MSS secret police informer recruitment; restrictions on having a place of worship, even for registered groups; fear of openly discussing human rights violations; severe haj restrictions, an exit ban list and other freedom of movement restrictions; and censorship of religious literature and other material. The interlocking nature of Turkmenistan's human rights violations appear designed to impose total state control of all of society.

TURKMENISTAN: Pastor freed, other religious prisoners of conscience remain jailed

Nearly 18 months after his August 2010 arrest in Turkmenistan, Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev was among a group of about 230 prisoners freed under amnesty on 18 February from a labour camp. "He and the other prisoners were brought by special police train to Mary, and we rushed to the station to meet him," his wife Maya told Forum 18 News Service. "His release was so unexpected we forgot to get flowers. It is such a joy I can't tell you." He was given a four-year prison sentence in October 2010 on charges of swindling, which members of his congregation insist were fabricated to punish him for leading his unregistered church. Pastor Nurliev only learnt he would be amnestied on the previous evening. "I want to thank you and everyone else who supported me and helped my release", he told Forum 18. He will have to live under restrictions, reporting weekly to the police. It appears that none of the six Jehovah's Witness prisoners or the two Jehovah's Witnesses serving suspended sentences were included in the amnesty. Pastor Nurliev expressed concern over several Muslim prisoners in Seydi who might have been imprisoned for their faith.

TURKMENISTAN: "Show trial" for conscientious objector

At the trial of the latest Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Akmurad Nurjanov in a courtroom in Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabad, senior school students were present to witness his one-year suspended prison sentence being handed down. "Taking them to the trial appears to have been designed as a warning of what will happen to the young men if they refuse military service," one Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18 News Service, calling the event a "show trial". It remains unknown what restrictions Nurjanov will have to live under during his sentence. Five other Jehovah's Witnesses are serving labour camp sentences of between 18 months and two years for refusing compulsory military service. The day after Nurjanov's sentence, another Ashgabad court rejected fellow Jehovah's Witness Vladimir Nuryllayev's appeal in his absence against his four-year prison term on charges of "spreading pornography". Community members say the charges were fabricated to punish him for his faith. The judge screamed at his fellow believers to leave the court house, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18.

TURKMENISTAN: Is publishing religious poetry a crime?

After Protestant Begjan Shirmedov tried to print copies of a small book of his religious poetry, a local religious affairs official waiting for him at the printing shop took him to the Police 6th Department, responsible for counter-terrorism and organised crime work. There the 74-year-old poet was questioned for six hours, forced to write a statement and banned from travelling outside his home region of Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan while his case is investigated, Protestants told Forum 18. Separately, other local Protestants in Dashoguz have been questioned over printing religious materials. It remains unclear if any will face charges. Turkmenistan imposes strict censorship on religious literature. Meanwhile, the appeal of Jehovah's Witness Vladimir Nuryllayev against his four-year prison sentence is due at Ashgabad City Court on 14 February. His fellow Jehovah's Witnesses vigorously deny charges he was "distributing pornography" and insist he is being punished for his faith. Seven other religious prisoners of conscience are known to be held.

TURKMENISTAN: Four-year prison sentence after "secret trial"

After a "secret trial" in the capital Ashgabad on 18 January which his family and friends knew nothing about, Jehovah's Witness Vladimir Nuryllayev was sentenced to four years' imprisonment on charges of "spreading pornography", a court official told Forum 18 News Service. "All this has been done because he is a Jehovah's Witness," fellow Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. "Vladimir is a highly moral and deeply devout person and has nothing to do with pornography." The Investigator refused to discuss the case. An unverified report says a Muslim may have been sentenced in 2011 on similar charges for distributing religious discs. Eight other religious prisoners of conscience are known to be in labour camp. Recently freed prisoners have testified of beatings and punishments of solitary confinement. "A member of the Special Police Force (OMON) entered my cell on two occasions and beat me on the head and neck with his baton," one recalled. A Deputy Justice Minister claimed to a United Nations Committee in November 2011 that Turkmenistan has no political prisoners. The UN Committee called on Turkmenistan to end the "various restrictions impacting negatively on the freedom of religion".

UZBEKISTAN: New haj pilgrimage, same old restrictions

The Uzbek authorities have again this year imposed severe restrictions on how many pilgrims could take part in this year's haj pilgrimage, now underway in Saudi Arabia. Only 5,080 out of a potential quota of about 28,000 travelled to Mecca. About as many pilgrims travelled from Kyrgyzstan as from Uzbekistan, more than five times more populous. An official of one Sergeli District mahalla (neighbourhood), with between 3,000 and 7,000 residents, told Forum 18 News Service that "our mahalla will be able to send pilgrims only in 2012. Several people are on the waiting list but maybe only one will go." As before, an "unwritten instruction" banned would-be pilgrims under the age of 45, officials of a local mahalla committee in Tashkent told Forum 18. Pilgrims faced official screening, while secret police officers reportedly accompany the pilgrims. An Imam outside Tashkent, who did not wish to be named for fear of state reprisals, complained that "unofficial payments" more than doubled the cost of the haj. "The number of applicants would be much, much higher if the cost was not so high," he lamented to Forum 18.

TURKMENISTAN: Maximum sentence for latest conscientious objector

Jehovah's Witness Mahmud Hudaybergenov was given the maximum two-year labour camp sentence in early August in Turkmenistan's north-eastern city of Dashoguz for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, local Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. He was prevented from lodging an appeal. He is the eighth current known imprisoned conscientious objector, while the ninth known religious prisoner of conscience is a Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev. Another Jehovah's Witness given a one-year labour camp sentence on the same charges in July was freed under amnesty in late August. Meanwhile, one Ashgabad-based observer told Forum 18 the number of Muslims the Turkmen authorities are likely to allow to travel on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca in November is "about 180", out of a quota believed to be 5,000. While one regional state religious affairs official told Forum 18 pilgrims' documentation has been prepared and sent to Ashgabad, no official would give Forum 18 the number. The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Ashgabad told Forum 18 the number of haj visas it is issuing is "secret information".

TURKMENISTAN: You're not going on a summer holiday

Members of a Baptist Church from northern Turkmenistan had just arrived for a shared summer holiday in Avaza on the Caspian Sea when the local police officer, eight officials in civilian clothes and the imam (who is also the state-appointed religious affairs official) raided their accommodation, Protestants told Forum 18 News Service. The officials and imam insulted and threatened the visitors over three days because of their faith and church members had to abandon their holiday. Meanwhile, none of the eight known religious prisoners of conscience (one Protestant and seven Jehovah's Witnesses) is known to have been freed in the presidentially-decreed late August amnesty. Not freed was Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev, who has spent a year in custody on what church members say were trumped-up charges to punish him for leading his church. His wife is "so disappointed," one of their friends told Forum 18. "She again sits at home and cries."

TURKMENISTAN: Eleven religious prisoners of conscience in one camp

The arrival at the Seydi Labour Camp in eastern Turkmenistan of Sunet Japbarov and Dovran Matyakubov, Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors, brought to eleven the number of religious prisoners of conscience held in this camp, Forum 18 News Service notes. Ten are conscientious objectors. Japbarov and Matyakubov each received 18-month prison terms in December 2010 for refusing compulsory military service. Concern is mounting among his friends for another of the religious prisoners in the Seydi Camp, Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev. The Labour Camp administration has refused to allow him medical treatment for his diabetes, for which he regularly visited a hospital before his August 2010 arrest. "Our first aim is restoring his health," his friends told Forum 18. Police who summoned members of his unregistered congregation warned: "if we find out the church has been meeting, we'll do the same to you as we did to Ilmurad".

TURKMENISTAN: Literature import controls lifted for Orthodox - but not for others

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has noted that Turkmen government controls on importing religious material for use in their parishes in Turkmenistan have been lifted, yet confiscation of religious literature from residents returning to the country continues, members of a variety of faiths told Forum 18 News Service. Although isolated instances of confiscations of such literature on leaving Turkmenistan have also occurred earlier, this has stepped up in recent months. Patriarch Kirill also said discussions with the Foreign Ministry are underway over building a new Orthodox cathedral in Ashgabad. Planned in the 1990s, it was never built and the site was later used for another building. Bayram Samuradov, chief architect of Ashgabad, told Forum 18 that a provisional new site has been earmarked for the cathedral. "It is more beautiful and appropriate than the old site, and is located in an area with a large European population," he told Forum 18. He refused to discuss why other faiths cannot build places of worship in Ashgabad. "That's not a question for me."