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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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TURKMENISTAN: "Principles of mercy, justice and humanism" fail to free religious prisoners of conscience

None of the nine known religious prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan was freed in the February amnesty decreed "on the principles of mercy, justice and humanism". Nor were three Jehovah's Witnesses serving suspended sentences. Sentenced in December 2010 to an 18-month prison term for refusing compulsory military service was 19-year-old Jehovah's Witness Matkarim Aminov, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. One year after the United Nations wrote an "urgent appeal" to the Turkmen government over the continued imprisonment of conscientious objectors, the government has failed to respond to the UN. Ata, an aide to Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, said the Ministry is "not competent" to explain why it has not responded. Imprisoned Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev is still being denied a Bible. His wife Maya Nurlieva told Forum 18 she treasures his personal Bible at home as something precious to him which she can hold in his absence.

TURKMENISTAN: "I don't know how these people are going to pay the fines"

After a 22 January raid on Protestants in a private flat in Turkmenabad in eastern Turkmenistan, a court has imposed heavy fines on at least five of those present, with threats to fine about a dozen more, Protestants who asked not to be identified for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 News Service. All are thought to have been fined under Article 205 Part 2 of the Administrative Code, which punishes "support for or participation in the activity of a religious group of religious organisation not officially registered in accordance with the legally established procedure". Two children present were forced to stand before their entire schools and publicly insulted. Victims of other raids are often afraid to have their cases publicised, for fear of attracting further state harassment. Local people told Forum 18 that the fines represent between one and two months' average wages for those in an average state job. "I don't know how these people are going to pay the fines," one told Forum 18. State officials refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. The Administrative Code is being re-drafted, but previous legislative changes have not improved freedom of religion or belief in practice.

TURKMENISTAN: "Ilmurad will pray and praise God at Christmas in the labour camp"

Turkmenistan has not released any of its nine known religious prisoners of conscience in its latest prisoner amnesty, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The latest prisoner of conscience sentenced for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief - Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev, given a four year jail term with forcible "medical" treatment in October – is among those excluded. Among the other prisoners of conscience also excluded is Ahmet Hudaybergenov, a Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector sentenced to one and a half years in September. Pastor Nurliev's wife Maya – who is under MSS secret police surveillance – told Forum 18 that her husband has been sent to Seydi Labour Camp. Previous Baptists and Jehovah's Witness prisoners in the Camp appear to have been tortured with psychotropic [mind-altering] drugs, and a former prisoner of conscience described conditions in the Camp as "like something from the Middle Ages". Maya Nurlieva told Forum 18 that "Ilmurad will pray and praise God at Christmas in the labour camp – he has composed hymns and songs in Turkmen and Russian".

TURKMENISTAN: Will government respond to OSCE call for Religion Law changes?

Nearly three years after Turkmenistan's government declared "reform" to the Religion Law to be a "priority", the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has published a legal review of the current Law criticising many of its provisions for violating international human rights standards. The Review calls for many changes, including an end to the ban on unregistered religious activity and on the private teaching of religion. Officials in the capital Ashgabad refused to discuss whether they will amend the Law in line with the OSCE recommendations. Pirnazar Hudainazarov, Chair of the Mejlis (Parliament) Committee on the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, refused absolutely to discuss the OSCE review. He referred Forum 18 News Service to the Foreign Ministry, but no-one there was prepared to discuss this. Turkmen citizens have told Forum 18 that they remain sceptical that legal changes will end continuing state violations of freedom of religion or belief, They comment that the actions of officials directly attacking people exercising the internationally recognised right to freedom of religion or belief, and other fundamental human rights, are more important than Turkmenistan's published laws.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, November 2010

Freedom of religion or belief in Turkmenistan is with other intertwined human rights highly restricted. Among systematic violations noted in Forum 18 News Service's religious freedom survey are: state control of religious leaders and communities; racial discrimination based on promoting a homogeneous culture; severe restrictions on religious education and sharing beliefs, including banning women from studying academic theology in the country; a ban on unregistered religious activity, and great difficulty in those who want it acquiring registration; restrictions on having a place of worship, even for registered groups; MSS secret police informer recruitment; state reprisals against those who discuss human rights violations; an exit ban list and other restrictions on freedom of movement; censorship of religious literature and other material; increasing numbers of prisoners of conscience, with one prisoner ordered to be subjected to abusive medical treatment; and the use of previous "offences" to harass those the authorities dislike. It appears that government promises of "reform" are for foreign consumption only, without any intent to end human rights violations against Turkmenistan's people.

TURKMENISTAN: "One thing shines through from this sordid tale.."

Maya Nurlieva, wife of Protestant prisoner of conscience Ilmurad Nurliev, has told Forum 18 News Service that the court deliberately withheld the written verdict to prevent him from lodging his appeal against his four-year prison term. She added that even though Nurliev and his church reject the charges brought, ordered her to pay "compensation" immediately. "I had to pay or they would kick us out of our home." The verdict also orders "forcible medical treatment to wean him off his narcotic dependency" - even though there is no independent medical evidence of this, which his wife and others strongly deny. Nurliev may be sent to a labour camp where there are indications that prisoners were tortured with psychotropic [mind-altering] drugs. The verdict contains demonstrably false allegations, and there is strong evidence that prosecution "witnesses" have been coerced into making statements. Turkmen human rights defender Natalya Shabunts noted that: "One thing shines through from this sordid tale: no church member betrayed their pastor and almost all came to the court. In a country where fundamental human rights are violated on a daily basis and an atmosphere of fear prevails before the unpunished actions of the 'law-enforcement agencies', this is a very bold move."

TURKMENISTAN: "They didn't even allow him to kiss me"

Turkmenistan has jailed two more prisoners of conscience, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev was today (21 October) jailed for four years and is likely to be sent to the Seydi labour camp where there have been claims of the use of psychotropic [mind-altering] drugs against prisoners. In mid-September a Jehovah's Witness, Ahmet Hudaybergenov, who conscientiously objects to compulsory military service, was sentenced to one and a half years. Pastor Nurliev's wife and fellow-church members strongly deny the authorities' allegations, and are seriously concerned for his health as the court ordered forced treatment for alleged drug addiction. A diabetic, they told Forum 18 he looked "very, very pale and thin" at the trial. Among "witnesses" produced by the authorities was a woman who was in jail on criminal charges when the authorities claimed she gave Pastor Nurliev money. Friends of Nurliev present at the trial told Forum 18 that "it was clear the whole thing was set up". Nurliev was surrounded at the trial by MSS secret police officers, who prevented his wife from coming close to her husband. "They didn't even allow him to kiss me," Maya Nurlieva complained to Forum 18.

TURKMENISTAN: Why can't all Muslims make haj pilgrimage?

Unlike in 2009, when no pilgrims were allowed to travel, Turkmenistan is allowing a group of pilgrims to take part in the Muslim haj pilgrimage to Mecca in November – but only 188 people. In the past this figure has included members of the MSS secret police, to monitor pilgrims, and it also seems that – as usual - would-be pilgrims will not be allowed to travel separately from the government-approved group. Forum 18 News Service has learnt that at least one would-be independent pilgrim has been denied a Saudi Arabian haj visa, because the individual was not on the Turkmen government list. "In practice the Saudi Arabian Embassy won't give them a visa unless they are on the list approved by the Turkmen authorities. They refuse them on various pretexts," one Ashgabad resident complained to Forum 18. Turkmen officials have often claimed that Turkmen residents are allowed to go on the haj independently of the small government-sponsored group. However, Forum 18 has not found any independent confirmation that this has been allowed by either Turkmenistan or Saudi Arabia.

TURKMENISTAN: Protestant pastor's trial set for 21 October

Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev is due to begin trial in Turkmenistan on the morning of Thursday 21 October, nearly two months after his arrest, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The criminal trial in Mary is on charges of large-scale swindling, with a penalty of up to five years' jail. His wife and church members vigorously deny the charges, and insist that the five people named as making accusations are not as the indictment claims church members. Three of them only attended the church a few times, and the remaining two are unknown. Other accusations vigorously denied are that Pastor Nurliev is a drug addict in need of treatment; he is a diabetic and – as she has not been allowed to see him – his wife is very concerned about his health. They also refute an allegation that he is unemployed and lives off the earnings of others, as he worked – until his arrest – as a barber. "Up to 20 church members will try to attend – all are ready to speak up to defend my husband," Maya Nurlieva told Forum 18. She has asked the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Centre in Ashgabad to send independent monitors to the trial. The Church has stopped meeting for worship after the arrest.

TURKMENISTAN: Amid new sentences, new law fails to introduce alternative civilian service

Two Jehovah's Witness young men were given 18-month prison terms in August for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. When the parents of one of them, Dovleyet Byashimov, were able to have a brief meeting with him in prison, they "saw that he had been beaten black and blue," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. The sentences bring to seven the number of imprisoned conscientious objectors, with a further three serving non-custodial sentences. Pirnazar Hudainazarov, Chair of the Mejlis (Parliament) Committee on the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, confirmed to Forum 18 that the new Law on Military Obligation and Military Service approved by the Mejlis in late September includes no provision for alternative service. But he refused to explain why Turkmenistan fails to offer an alternative in line with its international human rights commitments. Meanwhile, the wife of imprisoned Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev has expressed concern that his case is "at a standstill".

TURKMENISTAN: "Women can't study there"

Women are banned from studying theology in Turkmenistan - including Islamic theology, the only permitted religious university subject – an official has told Forum 18 News Service. "Only men are accepted for this course," the State University official – who did not give her name or role – told Forum 18. "Women can't study there." She declined to say why this discrimination against women has been imposed. This is the only university-level institution in Turkmenistan where the government allows any religious faith to be studied, and only Islam is permitted to be studied. It is also the only institution where the government allows young men who want to become imams to be trained. Potential imams are not allowed to study abroad, and only a small number of men (some of whom do not wish to become imams) are allowed to academically study any religious topic. Only the Russian Orthodox Church is permitted to send male and female students abroad for their studies, and the possibilities for all other formal and informal (such as Sunday School) religious education and instruction are extremely severely restricted.

TURKMENISTAN: Appeal for imprisoned pastor

The wife of imprisoned Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev, Maya Nurlieva, has expressed concern to Forum 18 News Service over his state of health in a smoky, overcrowded investigation cell, especially as he has no access to medical treatment for his diabetes. The 45-year-old grandfather has been accused of extracting money from three people, charges his wife and church members vigorously reject. She says police pressured the accusers. "All this is being done because of his faith." Local prosecutor Razmurad Durdiev defends the investigation. "No-one is being pressured to write statements," he claimed to Forum 18. Nurlieva called on international observers – including from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – to attend any trial, a request she put in person to the OSCE Centre in Ashgabad. The OSCE Centre told Forum 18 it is "closely following the developments regarding the case of Pastor Nurliev". Meanwhile, Turkmenistan's government has not yet revealed if it will allow any Muslims to undertake the haj pilgrimage to Mecca this year.