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 blacklist, 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 blacklist", 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.
Hare Krishna devotee Murad Uraev had a valid Russian visa and an air ticket for Moscow when border guards at the airport in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat] stopped him just before boarding when they found his name on the computer exit blacklist. He had been intending to meet fellow believers in Moscow and visit the temple. He subsequently tried to reach Russia by taking a bus through neighbouring Uzbekistan, but was again prevented from leaving by border guards and sent back.
"He doesn't know why he's on the blacklist," one source who preferred not to be identified told Forum 18 on 8 November. "He spent a lot of money on the Russian visa and the air ticket and now it's been wasted." The source said that Uraev had returned early in 2005 from India, where he had spent most of the previous year, and faced "a lot of questions" on his return.
The Protestants, who were from a church away from Ashgabad, had been leaving Turkmenistan for Bible studies in a neighbouring country. They had all the necessary documents with them, including visas for their destination country. "The two do not appear to have been on the exit blacklist," a church member told Forum 18 on 9 November, asking that the names, destination, place of residence and affiliation of the church not be published for fear of reprisals. "Border guards asked them on departure why they were travelling abroad and they gave the reason. Then they were barred."
Another source told Forum 18 that despite attempts to overturn the exit ban, the two still are not being allowed to leave the country. "They keep being told this will be resolved tomorrow, but all this has been dragging on for more than a month," the source told Forum 18 on 8 November. "Finally they claimed the order came 'from above' not to let them out. The border guards are violating the human rights of their own citizens."
The church member reported that this is the first such exit ban affecting this denomination since the exit visa requirement was lifted.
Members of other religious communities – who preferred not to be identified or have their religious affiliation given – confirmed that religious believers can and do travel abroad for religious purposes, such as attending places of worship, going on pilgrimage, taking part in conferences or meeting fellow believers. However, they do not report the purpose of their visit to border guards for fear of being barred from leaving.
Before the abolition of the exit visa requirement, believers of a variety of faiths were barred from travelling abroad. In 2003, nearly 50 Jehovah's Witnesses were denied exit visas to attend a convention in Tajikistan.
In March 2004, just two months after exit visas were abolished, two Jehovah's Witnesses were prevented from boarding a flight to the Ukrainian capital Kiev to attend a Jehovah's Witnesses conference because their names were on a blacklist. They were told to apply to the Border Service Headquarters in Ashgabad for further explanation (see F18News 23 March 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=285). In April 2004, Deutsche Welle radio reported that five Jehovah's Witnesses were removed from a flight from Ashgabad to Moscow because they were blacklisted and forbidden to leave the country.
In January 2005, an ethnic Russian Protestant pastor was stopped at a border crossing and was not allowed to leave for Uzbekistan. After waiting for a day for approval to cross, he gave up and returned home.
Turkmenistan has a record of claiming changes in its policies which make no practical difference to the realities faced by its citizens, as in the case of its alleged "relaxation" of requirements for state registration of religious communities (see eg. F18News 18 August 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=632).
The Turkmen government has tried to isolate religious believers from their fellow believers abroad as part of the general aim of cutting the country off from the outside world. In the summer the government expelled all the Turkish Islamic teachers when it cut back on and downgraded the Faculty of Muslim Theology at Magtymguly Turkmen State University in Ashgabad, the country's only Islamic higher educational institution. The Russian Orthodox Church in Turkmenistan – which is part of the Central Asian diocese based in neighbouring Uzbekistan - has faced pressure to cut ties with the diocese. Foreign religious delegations are usually denied visas (see F18News 18 October 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=672).
Fearing exposure of its repression of religious communities, the government also refuses to grant entry permission to Asma Jahangir, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief. In her 30 September 2005 report to the UN General Assembly (A/60/399), Jahangir reported that she had this year "reminded" the Turkmen government of the 2003 request for permission to visit the country. In response to her reminder, she reported laconically: "No reply". She said she regarded in situ visits as a "crucial aspect of the mandate on freedom of religion and belief" and expressed concern at Turkmenistan's failure to respond.
For more background, see Forum 18's Turkmenistan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=672
A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=turkme
24 October 2005
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.
18 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.
13 September 2005
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.