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4 December 2003

TURKMENISTAN: Continuing concern at criminalisation of religious belief and practice

Reliable sources have told Forum 18 News Service that officials don't yet know how harshly to implement Turkenistan's new religion law, which breaches international human rights agreements the country has signed. It is believed that instructions may be given for harsh implementation. International pressure on Turkmenistan is growing the UN human rights committee passing a European Union sponsored resolution calling for an end to "serious and continuing human rights violations", as well as criticism by the US Helsinki Commission. US Secretary of State Colin Powell told this month's OSCE ministerial meeting that "Turkmenistan's persecution of political opponents and religious minorities violates the letter and the spirit of the Helsinki Act." Religious minorities inside Turkmenistan have told Forum 18 of their continuing concerns about how the new law may be used to criminalise religious belief and practice. However a Baptist told Forum 18 that "The rulers of Turkmenistan are not in charge, God is still in his place."

24 November 2003

TURKMENISTAN: President falsely claims no religious prisoners

Under pressure from a draft UN resolution sponsored by the EU and US, the Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov, has defended his record with the claim that Turkmenistan has never had religious prisoners of conscience and cooperates fully with international human rights bodies. However, Forum 18 News Service knows of Jehovah's Witness prisoners and an imam in internal exile. Also imprisoned for his faith was Baptist Shagildy Atakov. Turkmenistan has both consistently failed to cooperate with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and other UN human rights agencies and also has this month introduced a harsh new religion law outlawing all unregistered religious activity, which defies international human rights agreements it has signed.

20 November 2003

TAJIKISTAN: Religious freedom survey, November 2003

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Tajikistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the confusion that leads to officials wrongly insisting that registration of religious communities is compulsory. Unregistered religious communities do encounter difficulties with the authorities, but Forum 18 has been told that excesses "are not as a rule state policy, but simply the arbitrary actions of local officials." Compared to neighbouring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan generally follows a more lenient policy towards unregistered religious communities. This may be because Tajikistan, after a civil war, is not able to exert such harsh controls as Uzbekistan can. The Tajik authorities are most concerned with controlling Muslim life, because Muslims make up more than 90 per cent of the country's population, and because of the aftermath of the civil war. The possibility exists that government pressure on believers may intensify in the near future, under a proposed new law on religion.

19 November 2003

TURKMENISTAN: Secret police close down mosque refusing to go against Islam

The State Security Ministry (MSS) (ex-KGB) has closed down a mosque for not putting the Ruhnama (Book of the Soul), President Saparmurat Niyazov's spiritual writings, on the same stand as the Koran during Friday prayers to be filmed for TV, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Turkmen officials liken the Ruhnama to the Koran or the Bible, and it plays a large role in the President's personality cult, being compulsorily imposed on schools and the wider public. All large mosques are required to put the Ruhnama alongside the Koran during prayers. Forum 18 has learnt that mosque leaders refused to do this, saying it would contradict Islamic teachings to use books other than the Koran in prayers. The MSS interrogated the mosque leader, banned him from attending the mosque or to hold a position at another mosque, and closed down the mosque with locks on the doors. Many mosques and other places of worship have been closed by Turkmen authorities in the past five years.

11 November 2003

TURKMENISTAN: New religion law defies international human rights agreements

Turkmenistan's harsh new religion law, which came into force yesterday, outlaws all unregistered religious activity and a criminal code amendment prescribes penalties for breaking the law of up to a year of "corrective labour", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Turkmenistan thus joins Uzbekistan and Belarus in defying the international human rights agreements they have signed, by forbidding unregistered religious activity. As only Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities are de facto able to achieve registration, this is a considerable further move in repressing minority faiths. Forum 18 knows of religious believers having been fined, detained, beaten, threatened, sacked from their jobs, had their homes confiscated, banished to remote parts of the country or deported for unregistered religious activity.

3 November 2003

TURKMENISTAN: Even harsher controls on religion?

Turkmenistan plans to make its harsh state restrictions on religion even harsher, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Under a new draft religion law, which neither the OSCE nor Forum 18 has been able to see, penalties for breaking the law will lead to criminal, not administrative, punishments. The new law also reportedly requires religious groups to "coordinate" contacts with foreigners with the government, and to gain permission before receiving foreign support such as funding and religious literature. Turkmenistan has the harshest state controls on religion in the former Soviet Union, but the Justice Minister claims harsher controls are necessary to address security concerns. Places of worship have already been demolished and police routinely break up religious meetings. Believers have been beaten, threatened, fined, sacked from their jobs, imprisoned, had their homes confiscated, been sent to a remote area of the country, and deported from Turkmenistan.

14 October 2003

TURKMENISTAN: Fines doubled for Balkanabad Baptists

Already fined some 48 US dollars each (at the inflated official exchange rate) for participating in "illegal religious meetings", the members of a Baptist church are now seeing their fines doubled. "At present the local authorities of the town of Balkanabad are prohibiting the Baptists from meeting for worship, in violation of the rights guaranteed in Turkmenistan's Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," church members complained in a 3 October statement reaching Forum 18 News Service. "And they have increased the level of fines to 500,000 manats." No officials of the regional or town procurators' offices or the regional or town administrations were prepared to tell Forum 18 why the Baptists have been handed down such heavy fines for meeting for worship in private homes.

10 October 2003

TURKMENISTAN: Jehovah's Witness freed early from camp

Oguljan Jumanazarova, a Jehovah's Witness lawyer serving a four year sentence in the women's labour camp in the northern town of Tashauz, was freed early on 20 September, the Jehovah's Witness centre in St Petersburg has told Forum 18 News Service. Jumanazarova, from the town of Seydi, was sentenced in July 2001 on fraud charges that the Jehovah's Witnesses insist were imposed in retaliation for helping fellow Jehovah's Witnesses with their legal problems. "Nothing more is known about the terms of her release – only that she has been freed," a Jehovah's Witness spokesman told Forum 18. The Jehovah's Witnesses – like all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities – have been denied registration and are treated as illegal.

2 October 2003

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, October 2003

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the complete lack of freedom to practice any faith except for Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity in a limited number of registered places of worship. 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 de facto banned and their activity punishable under the administrative or criminal law. Religious meetings have been broken up (with a spate of raids on Protestants and Hare Krishnas since May), believers have been threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from their jobs, while homes used for worship and religious literature have been confiscated. Religious activity is overseen by the secret police's department for work with social organisations and religious groups, which recruits spies in religious communities.

1 September 2003

TURKMENISTAN: Baptists to be fined for each service

In the wake of the latest raid on a Baptist Sunday service in Balkanabad on 24 August, police have banned church members from meeting for services and threatened that if they do so they will be fined for each meeting. In July and August, all its members had already been fined 48 US dollars each. "The Baptists refuse to be registered, citing the fact that they are forbidden from having contact with the secular authorities," Balkanabad's procurator Berdy Shirjanov told Forum 18 News Service. "The law is the law. We have to fine the Baptists."

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