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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

TURKMENISTAN: Fines, beatings, threats of rape and psychiatric incarceration

Bilbil Kulyyeva was threatened with incarceration in a psychiatric hospital if she did not stop complaining about punishments imposed for following her faith as a Jehovah's Witness, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Officials threatened to put her two small children in a children's home and deport the other two. In June, police threatened another female Jehovah's Witness with rape. She was held overnight and freed the following day only after she had been forced to clean the police station and water plants outside. Four Jehovah's Witnesses were beaten and fined in May after refusing police and MSS secret police pressure to declare: "I am a Muslim." Police and the MSS secret police often work closely with local imams to intimidate Jehovah's Witnesses as well as Protestant Christians. The Jehovah's Witnesses lodged a formal registration application in August, but have had no response. Forum 18 could find no official prepared to explain why Jehovah's Witnesses and members of other faiths face harassment.

TURKMENISTAN: Why can't believers freely enter, leave or remain in the country?

As in previous years it appears that the government will allow only 188 Muslims to go on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca this year directly from Turkmenistan. "Only those on the official list who have been approved by the Cabinet of Ministers will go to Mecca on the one aeroplane," one source told Forum 18 News Service from Ashgabad. Would-be pilgrims must present an application form to their imam, who hands it to the regional authorities who pass it on to Ashgabad, a Muslim told Forum 18 from Turkmenbashi. He said two or three pilgrims are travelling this year from the city, while the waiting list is long. Meanwhile, the daughter of a Baptist pastor expelled from Turkmenistan in 2007 was herself obliged to leave in early November, despite being married to a Turkmen citizen. By contrast, relatives of another Baptist former prisoner were banned from leaving for Russia in the summer when they arrived at the airport. The new Moscow-based Russian Orthodox bishop for Turkmenistan is planning to make his first ever visit to the country.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, August 2008

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service has found continuing violations by the state of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Unregistered religious activity continues – in defiance of international human rights agreements – to be attacked. The government tries to control the extremely limited religious activity it permits, which often does not - even for registered religious groups - include the right to worship. Promises to respect human rights after the accession of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov have not stopped the state's continuing actions to deny freedom of thought, conscience and belief to peaceful Turkmen citizens of all faiths, including Muslims, Russian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics, Hare Krishna devotees and Baha'is. Officials appear to have no expectation that they will be held accountable for violating fundamental human rights such as religious freedom.

TURKMENISTAN: Will the state respect everyone's right to conscientious objection?

While several Jehovah's Witnesses in Turkmenistan are serving sentences for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, officials are considering whether to allow an alternative service possibility, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, it is unclear whether a concrete proposal exists. The latest Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector to be sentenced is Vladimir Golosenko, given two years forced labour in February 2008. While not imprisoned, twenty percent of his wages are taken by the state. Bayram Ashirgeldyyev, serving an 18-month suspended sentence imposed in July 2007, told Forum 18 that "I want an alternative service to be introduced – not just for myself but so that others don't suffer as I have suffered." The authorities have refused to give him the official stamp he needs for a job. "They promised to give it to me months ago but haven't," he complained. "I can't work, I can't leave Ashgabad and have to be at home by early evening each day." Religious believers are sceptical about whether legal changes will stop the authorities attacking people exercising their right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

COMMENTARY: Why can't all religious communities have places of worship?

One of the biggest problems faced by religious believers in Turkmenistan is not being able to freely maintain public places of worship, a Turkmen Protestant from a region far from the capital argues in a personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. "You cannot build, buy, or securely rent such property, let alone put up a notice outside saying 'This is a place of worship'," the Protestant comments. "All kinds of obstructions are imposed, whether through rules or just in practice," the commentary continues, noting that "whenever officials raid our meetings the first thing they ask is: 'Where's your registration certificate?' The government likes to be able to say to outsiders 'We have registration' and show them communities in Ashgabad. But people don't look at what we experience in places away from the capital, where we have no hope of registration." The Turkmen concludes that "without freedom to meet for worship it is impossible to claim that we have freedom of religion or belief."

TURKMENISTAN: "It is our duty to check up on religious organisations"

Some ten officials from the local Religious Affairs Department, the police, secret police, Justice Ministry and Tax Ministry raided a Bible class held by the Greater Grace Protestant church in a private flat in the capital Ashgabad on 11 April. Asked the reason for the check-up, Murad Aksakov of the local administration told Forum 18 News Service they wanted to find out how many people attended the classes, who those people were, and whether everything was in order with the church's documents. Pastor Vladimir Tolmachev told Forum 18 he was warned that the church was not allowed to teach its own members without permission from the government's Religious Affairs Committee, even though its officially-recognised Charter allows this. Officials told Tolmachev he would receive an official warning. Further such warnings could lead to the church's registration being stripped from it, rendering all its activities illegal. In an illustration of the problems even registered religious communities face, the church has no building of its own and has already had to move its services ten times this year.

TURKMENISTAN: What needs to change, the Religion Law or government actions?

Turkmenistan has promised to amend its Religion Law, but work on this has not started, Forum 18 News Service has found. Shirin Akhmedova, Director of the state National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, claimed the process of amending the Law would be "transparent" and would involve "international experts." However, she said that the views of local people would be listened to only after Forum 18 specifically asked about this. She refused to say what parts of the Law are likely to be amended, when a draft Law may be produced, or if there would be public discussion. She insisted that the country has a "new government" and denied that religious believers face any problems in practising their faith. Religious believers have told Forum 18 that no fundamental changes in religious policy have yet taken place. Many have stated that restrictions they face include not being able to: build or open places of worship; publish or import religious literature; travel abroad (including on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca); share their beliefs; or – for communities the authorities particularly dislike - gain legal status.

TURKMENISTAN: Another conscientious objector sentenced, another police raid

Ashirgeldy Taganov is the sixth conscientious objector to be sentenced in Turkmenistan in recent months for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. His fellow Jehovah's Witnesses complain that the court procedure was "hasty" and "careless" and that Taganov could not present his case in full. He was sentenced to an 18 month suspended sentence, which imposes harsh restrictions. Offenders cannot leave Ashgabad and must be back home each evening by 8 pm. They must also find work. "This is very difficult as there is no work available," another religious conscientious objector told Forum 18. Meanwhile, a Baptist congregation has been raided by police, who confiscated hymn books, a Bible concordance, books of poetry and 47 CD recordings of sermons and hymns. The Deputy Chair of the government's Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs conceded to Forum 18 that any such raid would be "unpleasant", but said he had heard nothing about it. He then put the phone down.

TURKMENISTAN: Haj pilgrimage promises still not honoured

Very senior officials in Turkmenistan have claimed that Muslim pilgrims wishing to undertake the haj would be free to do so. However, Turkmenistan continues to only permit one government-controlled aircraft of pilgrims – 188 people - to travel, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The pilgrims include members of the MSS secret police and other officials. Pilgrims are selected "under complete government control", one source told Forum 18, and need the approval of the Gengeshi for Religious Affairs and of their local Khyakimliks (administrations). Saudi Arabia, which sets haj pilgrimage numbers, would be prepared to allow 5,000 people to make the pilgrimage from Turkmenistan, and Iran has offered the opportunity for pilgrims to travel by bus. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov himself earlier this year made the umra ("minor pilgrimage") to Mecca, but has not yet honoured promises to allow anyone to make the pilgrimage. Serious violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief continue against people of all faiths.

TURKMENISTAN: Baptist forced to leave homeland, mullah still held in psychiatric hospital?

Freed from prison in November, Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky – a Ukrainian citizen - has failed in his attempt to remain with his wife, children and his congregation in his native town of Turkmenbashi. He is due to leave on a flight to Moscow on 11 December. Officials refused to explain their denial of a visa. "But of course it is linked to my activity as a believer," he told Forum 18 News Service. "Everything that has happened to me since 2001 is related to that." His congregation has no other pastor. Meanwhile, former enforced psychiatric hospital detainee Kakabai Tejenov told Forum 18 that among the fellow detainees was a mullah, who arrived at the closed hospital in Lebap Region in late 2006. Forum 18 has been unable to find out the mullah's name or if he is still being held. "If he is still being detained, I want him to be freed," Tejenov declared. Also, 18-year-old Jehovah's Witness Ashirgeldy Taganov still awaits possible trial for refusing compulsory military service.

TURKMENISTAN: "Prayer without state registration violates the Religion Law"

Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky has been warned not to meet for worship with his fellow believers, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "Officials summoned me for what they said was a conversation, but at the end presented me with a pre-written statement saying that I agreed not to meet with my fellow-believers," he told Forum 18. Although Kalataevsky's congregation does not oppose state registration on principle, officials kept telling him that his congregation does not have enough adult citizen members to apply for registration. They added that unregistered religious activity, including people meeting together for worship in homes, is banned. "I asked them to show me what part of the law bans unregistered worship and they were unable to do so," Kalataevsky told Forum 18. Throughout Turkmenistan, Protestants, Muslims and people from other faiths have been this autumn stopped from exercising their right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

TURKMENISTAN: Baptist freed, Jehovah's Witness threatened with new sentence

Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky has been freed after being amnestied from a three year labour camp sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "My wife Valentina wrote an official statement that I will not violate the law," he told Forum 18. "I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all who supported me and my family during my imprisonment." Asked about his health in the wake of his eight months in prison, Kalataevsky responded: "God strengthened me physically." Two Jehovah's Witnesses, who are serving suspended sentences have not been amnestied. Begench Shakhmuradov received a two year sentence in September 2007, and Bayram Ashirgeldyyev was given an 18 month sentence in July 2007. Ashirgeldyyev has been threatened with a new sentence, even though he is still serving his current suspended sentence. He has been barred from work unless he receives a stamp from the Military Commissariat, which refuses to give him this. Another Jehovah's Witness, Ashirgeldy Taganov, also faces prosecution for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.