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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.

TURKMENISTAN: Five years' imprisonment for arrested Protestant pastor?

Pentecostal pastor Ilmurad Nurliev, arrested at his home in Mary in south-eastern Turkmenistan on 27 August, faces criminal charges of large-scale swindling which carry a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment and confiscation of property, his wife Maya and his lawyer have told Forum 18 News Service. Two women who had attended church meetings wrote statements that he took money from them, as did a man they had never heard of, charges his wife and other church members deny vigorously. They say police pressured the two women to write the statements and they now regret doing so. Another church member has been threatened that if she does not testify against Pastor Nurliev her husband – who is not a church member – will be sacked from his job. Forum 18 was unable to discuss the case with officials, including police investigator Durdimurad Gazakov. Meanwhile, mystery surrounds why two imams were arrested and given long prison terms.

TURKMENISTAN: "The Constitution is only a scrap of paper for the Turkmen authorities"

Turkmenistan has raided a Christian young people's summer camp organised by two legally registered churches, Protestants who asked not to be identified for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 News Service. Participants – particularly ethnic Turkmens - were arrested, insulted, threatened and had personal Bibles confiscated. When camp leaders pointed out their rights to meet under Turkmenistan's Constitution, officers insulted the Constitution. "To put it mildly, the Constitution is only a scrap of paper for the Turkmen authorities," one Protestant complained to Forum 18, "while the Church's legal status means even less." Elsewhere, others have been pressured to sign statements that they will not meet for worship, and two Protestants were fired from their jobs because of their faith. Registration – and hence the right to carry out activities legally - remains impossible for many religious communities, and re-registration is being used as a weapon to stop religious activity. However, the Justice Ministry has after 13 years registered the Catholic congregation in the capital Ashgabad. But strict censorship and border controls are still being imposed on all religious literature and religious believers.

TURKMENISTAN: Jailed conscientious objectors punished again

Four of Turkmenistan's five imprisoned Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors were twice selected for more punishment in late 2009, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The four prisoners of conscience were first confined in their labour camp's punishment cells for three days, and later each given one month in the camp's isolation punishment cells. It is suspected that these punishments were imposed to exclude them from a prisoner amnesty this month (May), declared by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. None of the five prisoners of conscience – the only known people currently jailed for exercising their freedom of religion or belief - was included in the amnesty, and nor were the three other Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors serving suspended sentences. Also, changes to Turkmenistan's Criminal Code approved this month retained the country's criminalisation of conscientious objection to compulsory military service. Officials of the state's National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights and Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs have refused to discuss this with Forum 18.

TURKMENISTAN: Work not even begun on new Religion Law

Shemshat Atajanova of the government's National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights has admitted that work on a proposed new Religion Law has not even begun. "We were working on the NGO Law first," she told Forum 18 News Service. She then admitted that the proposed NGO Law has not even gone to Parliament yet. Both were among the "priority" laws marked for "reform" in January 2008. Religious believers told Forum 18 they remain sceptical that any legal changes will end the violations of religious freedom. "Nothing good for you will come from the new Religion Law," one Protestant cited Nurmukhamed Gurbanov, deputy head of the government's Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs, as having told them back in 2008. Nor has any non-Muslim community been able to gain legal status since September 2007. "We don't understand why they won't do it," members of the Path of Faith Baptist church in Dashoguz – which applied in 2005 – complained to Forum 18. The church was raided during worship in December 2009 because it is unregistered.

TURKMENISTAN: Sentences on conscientious objectors a "state secret"?

The City Court in Dashoguz – which sentenced 18-year-old Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Navruz Nasyrlayev to two years' imprisonment in December 2009 – refused to discuss his case with Forum 18 News Service. Asked if it is a state secret, a woman at the court responded: "Yes." His case brings to five the number of Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned for refusing compulsory military service in Turkmenistan, with a further three serving non-custodial sentences. Five of the eight sentences were handed down by Dashoguz City Court. Nasyrlayev's imprisonment comes as the Turkmen government's January 2010 report to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee made no reference to any right to conduct alternative civilian service.

TURKMENISTAN: Exit bans, haj ban, visa denials part of state religious isolation policy

Taken off an aeroplane in the capital Ashgabad just before departure in October 2007, Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev has been unable to leave Turkmenistan since. Like many who are on the exit ban list, the Migration Service refuses to tell him why. He told Forum 18 News Service the ban could only have been imposed to punish him for his religious activity. The exit ban list is part of the Turkmen government's long-standing policy of trying to isolate religious communities within the country from their fellow-believers abroad, which has included expelling legally resident foreigners who engaged in religious activity. In 2009 it banned even the small number of Muslims allowed to go on the haj pilgrimage to leave for Mecca, citing health grounds. One foreign Protestant told Forum 18 the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs refused to authorise a planned visit to fellow believers in Turkmenistan in 2009. Local people who are able to travel abroad face routine confiscation of religious literature on their return, which is often destroyed.

TURKMENISTAN: Worship without state registration "illegal"

Turkmenistan continues to raid Protestants meeting for worship in different parts of the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. One such raid was led by Turkmenistan's former Chief Mufti, Rovshen Allaberdiev, who is now imam of Dashoguz Region as well as being the senior regional Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs official. Allaberdiev and accompanying officials confiscated Christian books during the raid, including personal Bibles. All 22 people present were taken to a local government building, questioned and pressured to sign statements not to attend the church in future. "Some people signed and now some are afraid to come to services, especially new people," one church member told Forum 18. "We were told it is illegal to meet without state registration. But we told them we have already applied for registration and are waiting for a response." In a separate raid in another region, police accused a pastor of violating the Religion Law by praying at a birthday party.

COMMENTARY: The European Court of Human Rights - Out of step on conscientious objection

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR) has recently made a very dangerous judgement for freedom of religion or belief in the Bayatyan v. Armenia case which puts it out of step with the international standards on conscientious objection to military service and with the Council of Europe's own human rights agenda, notes Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The Court, apparently unaware of the recent parallel jurisprudence under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found no violation of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the imprisonment of a Jehovah's Witness for his refusal on grounds of conscientious objection to perform military service, or the subsequent increase in the sentence, which had been partly justified by his reasons for refusal. Brett argues that it is vital that the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR agrees to hear the appeal in the Bayatyan case, as it alone can overturn the precedent which this will otherwise set for future ECtHR cases.

TURKMENISTAN: State officials' dual role as clergy to suppress freedom of religion or belief

Some state officials in Turkmenistan's Gengesh (Council) for Religious Affairs, which restricts freedom of religion or belief for all, have a dual role as clergy within religious communities. This was most recently demonstrated in late September 2009, Forum 18 News Service notes. Most if not all the senior Muslim clergy given new appointments then were also officials in the Gengesh. The new Chief Mufti, Gurban Haitliev, has a staff position at the central Gengesh, and was previously head of the Lebap regional Gengesh as well as the region's Chief Imam. Four of the officials appointed to head regional branches of the Gengesh were also appointed as new regional Chief Imams, officials have told Forum 18. In their dual role as Gengesh officials and religious community leaders they work with other state agencies such as the MSS secret police. Meanwhile, residents of the capital Ashgabat have told Forum 18 that the University's [Islamic] Theology Department building has been demolished without warning. Gengesh Deputy Chair Nurmukhamed Gurbanov told Forum 18 that "there are no problems in Turkmenistan."