TURKMENISTAN: Baptist freed after international pressure
Baptist Geldy Khudaikuliev was freed on 20 December from the secret police headquarters in Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabad, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Sources who did not wish to be named have told Forum 18 that he has now returned to his family and is very grateful to everyone who helped to secure his release, which they attribute to Forum 18's coverage of his case. However, as unregistered religious activity is seen as criminal activity by the Turkmen authorities, the situation of Baptists and of other religious communities continues to cause international concern.
Khudaikuliev leads a small Baptist community in the town of Geok-Tepe, 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Ashgabad. Like all non-Sunni Muslim and all non-Russian Orthodox communities it does not have state registration and the government treats all its activity as illegal. He had travelled to Ashgabad to collect money that had been transferred to him from the office of Western Union. It remains unclear whether he withdrew the money or not, although Western Union apparently told those who had sent the money that it had been withdrawn on 13 December.
After Khudaikuliev's 15 December detention, for several days his family did not know what had happened to him. The family was later told that he was being held at the main headquarters of the National Security Ministry in Ashgabad, though no-one was allowed access to him (see F18News 19 December 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=218 ).
Baptists, like all other religious communities apart from Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox, are denied state registration by the Turkmen authorities. This means that all their religious activity are regarded as criminal offences under a harsh new religion law introduced in November 2003. The definition of unregistered religious activity as criminal activity defies the international human rights agreements Turkmenistan has signed (see F18News 11 November 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=180 ), and can have very serious consequences for religious believers (see F18News 9 December 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=208 ).
The new religion law is the harshest in formerly Soviet states. Even before it came in Forum 18 knew of cases of places of worship being demolished by the authorities, and of religious believers being punished for unregistered religious activity by being fined, detained, beaten, threatened, sacked from their jobs, having their homes confiscated, being banished to remote parts of the country or being deported.
For more background see Forum 18's latest religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=151 ).
A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=turkme
19 December 2003
It is feared that detained Baptist Geldy Khudaikuliev may not be released as promised by Turkmen secret police officers, Forum 18 News Service has learnt, and concerns are growing that he may have criminal charges laid against him and be being tortured. The family has been told that he is being held at the main headquarters of the National Security Ministry in the capital Ashgabad, and access to him is not being permitted. Khudaikuliev leads a small Baptist community in the town of Geok-Tepe, 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Ashgabad. Like all non-Sunni Muslim and all non-Russian Orthodox communities it does not have state registration and the government treats all its activity as illegal. He had travelled to Ashgabad to collect money that had been transferred to him, and was then detained by the National Security Ministry, which has declined to discuss his case with Forum 18.
9 December 2003
In the first instance known to Forum 18 News Service of the use against believers of Turkmenistan's harsh new religion law, which came into force in November, police raided a Baptist Sunday service and took everyone present, including children, to a police station. Forum 18 has learnt that everyone present was accused of breaking the new religion law by worshipping without state registration, warned they would be fined 10 times the minimum wage for the first two such cases in a year, and then face criminal charges. One women was threatened that her children would be taken from her and then put in a children's home. Turkmenistan only allows Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities to have state registration.
4 December 2003
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."