TURKMENISTAN: Heavy fines on Balkanabad Baptists
In the first case known to Forum 18 News Service of penalties imposed on believers for meeting for worship since Turkmenistan's harsh new law on religion came into force last November, twelve members of a Baptist church in the western town of Balkanabad were given fines of 75 US dollars each, more than one month's wages. The fines followed a police raid on the unregistered church during Sunday worship in late November and came on top of earlier fines last year. A 7 January statement from the Baptists reaching Forum 18 reported that officials "also warned the brothers and sisters that in the event of a repeated violation, the size of the fine would be much higher, while for a third violation they would be responsible under the criminal code".
Police who raided the 30 November service took all those present, including children, to the police station and warned church members that they would face severe punishments if they continued to worship without state registration. One of the Baptist women was threatened that her four children would be taken from her and placed in a children's home. The raid was led by Major Aman Annayev, the head of the town's sixth police department, which is responsible for combating organised crime and terrorism, but reached by telephone at his office in Balkanabad on 8 December, he categorically refused to discuss the raid with Forum 18 (see F18News 9 December 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=208 ).
Summoned and fined on 23 December were Boris Grishin, Olga Vasilieva, Marina Chukileva and Lyudmila Tabalenkova. On 2 January it was the turn of Tatyana Kosenchuk, Mariya Vilkova, Maksim Grishin, Yury Kippa and Vitaly Konovalov. The final group was fined on 4 January: Tariel Ramazanov, Nikolai Matsenko and Albina Matsenko. "They also warned the brothers and sisters that in the event of a repeated violation, the size of the fine would be much higher, while for a third violation they would be responsible under the criminal code," the Baptist statement added.
The Balkanabad Baptists belong to the Council of Churches (or unregistered Baptists). The Council of Churches split from other Baptists in 1961, when state-sponsored controls were introduced by the then Baptist leadership. It has refused state registration ever since. The authorities have already handed down steadily-increasing fines on the Balkanabad church for continuing to hold unregistered prayer meetings.
The new religion law, which came into force on 10 November 2003, outlaws all unregistered religious activity, while a criminal code amendment prescribes penalties for breaking the law of up to a year of "corrective labour" (see F18News 11 November 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=180 ).
As the authorities allow only Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities to register, this was a considerable further move in repressing minority faiths. Even before the new law came into force, 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.
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22 December 2003
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.
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.