19 October 2007
The Deputy Chair of Turkmenistan's Committee for Religious Affairs has refused to say whether the government pressured the Orthodox Church to split the Church's Central Asian Diocese by putting its Turkmen Deanery under the Patriarch. "I'm not authorised to respond to you," Nurmukhamed Gurbanov told Forum 18 News Service when asked about the split. However, Gurbanov was willing to discuss other matters, claiming for example that Orthodox parishes in the country face no restrictions. Fr Georgi Ryabykh of the Moscow Patriarchate told Forum 18 that they hope the decision will make pastoral oversight easier. "For years the bishop in Tashkent didn't visit this part of the Diocese, and that isn't normal church life." Deceased President Niyazov had asked for the split in 2005, sparking complaints from another priest that Niyazov was trying to build an independent Orthodox Church just as he had done with Islam. Fr Ryabykh, however, said that "It couldn't just be a response or reaction to a demand by a president, as if the president demands and the Church obeys." He added that "some time was necessary to understand the situation and make a decision."
18 October 2007
Tajikistan's Jehovah Witnesses have been banned throughout the entire country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Culture Ministry officials handed the community a banning order stripping it of legal status and "just said we were banned and should stop all our activity. They didn't say much," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Commenting on the ban, which Forum 18 has seen, a Culture Ministry official stated that the authorities' main complaint was that Jehovah's Witnesses refuse military service. "There is no alternative service in Tajikistan yet, so everyone ought to obey Tajik laws," he told Forum 18. The official then added that they also propagate their faith in public places, "which directly contradicts the Law". The ban follows a check-up by Prosecutor's Office and Religious Affairs officials on all Tajik religious communities. It is not known if the ban is related to the check-up, which resulted in some mosques being closed. Jehovah's Witnesses intend to appeal against the ban.
9 October 2007
Four of the six religious prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan have been amnestied, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, one of the four – Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky - remains in custody and may be deported. "We're worried as there is only a small hope that he will be allowed to stay here," members of Kalataevsky's family told Forum 18. "The family and the Church want him to stay – and he wants to stay." They say the Ukrainian embassy has also appealed to the Turkmen authorities for Kalataevsky – a Ukrainian citizen - to be allowed to remain with his family in Turkmenistan. The three other amnestied religious prisoners are all Jehovah's Witnesses who were serving suspended sentences for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience. But not freed under amnesty were Jehovah's Witnesses Bayram Ashirgeldyyev and Begench Shakhmuradov. They are respectively serving 18 month and two year suspended sentences, which place limitations on their activities.
13 September 2007
Jehovah's Witness Begench Shakhmuradov has rejected the two year suspended sentence handed down yesterday (12 September) by an Ashgabad court for his refusal to perform compulsory military service. "I believe I have the right to freedom of thought and religion and the court should have respected this," he told Forum 18. Shakhmuradov does not yet know the conditions to be imposed on him, but he is likely to have to report regularly to the police and to need permission to leave Ashgabad. Suleiman Udaev, one of the four other Jehovah's Witnesses sentenced in the past three months, has had his 18-month prison term commuted to a two-year suspended sentence with compulsory labour and was allowed home on 12 September. Meanwhile, the wife of imprisoned Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky told Forum 18 she does not know if he will be included in October's mass prisoner amnesty. Nurmukhamed Gurbanov of the government's Religious Affairs Committee refused to discuss any of these cases with Forum 18.
31 August 2007
Begench Shakhmuradov could become the fifth Jehovah's Witness to be sentenced this summer for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience. "He was called up in May and the military commission deemed him fit for service although he still suffers from tuberculosis he contracted in prison while serving an earlier sentence for refusing military service," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service from Ashgabad. His case is with the Prosecutor's Office. Shirin Akhmedova, head of the government's National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, put the phone down as soon as Forum 18 asked why religious believers are still being prosecuted. A planned 24-hour family visit with imprisoned Baptist Vyacheslav Kalataevsky was cut without explanation to just 40 minutes, his family complained to Forum 18. "Of course we all cried and were all upset," his family told Forum 18. Meanwhile, Merdan Shirmedov, a Protestant from Dashoguz banned from leaving Turkmenistan since January, has been able to leave to rejoin his wife and their daughter he had never seen.
15 August 2007
Jehovah's Witness Suleiman Udaev has been given an 18-month jail sentence for refusing military service, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Currently detained at a regional prison, he is "OK, healthy – but it is hard there, of course", his father told Forum 18. Udaev is being held in a 15 square metre (17 square yard) cell with 19 other prisoners, and is permitted one visit a month by his mother. She has been only able to see him through a window and speak via a telephone. "We can't give him anything," his father said. Following the expulsion of Baptist pastor Yevgeny Potolov in early July, his family are now being threatened with deportation themselves. During a raid by officials on Nadezhda Potolov's congregation, she was threatened with deportation, the congregation was forced to disperse and officials - apparently unaware that the congregation is Baptist – referred to "an illegal mob of Jehovah's Witnesses." Also, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, the recently released former Chief Mufti and former Deputy Chairman of the Council (Gengeshi) for Religious Affairs has been appointed as a "leading specialist" in the Gengeshi. No officials have been available to discuss these cases with Forum 18.
13 August 2007
Relatives and friends of Turkmenistan's former Chief Mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, local people in his northern home region and visitors from neighbouring Uzbekistan have held a traditional Turkmen "sadaka" (thanksgiving feast) to celebrate his release from prison, Forum 18 News Service has been told. "Very, very many people came," exiled Turkmen human rights activist Farid Tukhbatullin of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights told Forum 18. However, the other known religious prisoner, Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky, has not been released. The family confirmed to Forum 18 today (13 August) that he is still being held in a labour camp with harsh conditions, and insist that he is being punished for his activity with his unregistered Baptist congregation. Several Jehovah's Witnesses have recently been given suspended jail sentences for refusing military service on religious grounds. Since Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became President in early 2007, raids, fines, public threats, imprisonment and other violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief have significantly increased.
26 July 2007
On 3 August Jehovah's Witness Suleiman Udaev is due to go on criminal trial in the eastern town of Mary for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, Forum 18 News Service has learned. His trial will come two weeks after three young Jehovah's Witnesses were sentenced on the same charges in the capital Ashgabad. Two received suspended two year sentences. The third - Nuryagdy Gayyrov – had his eighteen-month prison sentence transferred to a one-year suspended sentence on 23 July after the prosecutor appealed against what he regarded as a harsh sentence. The three face tight restrictions. They cannot leave Ashgabad and must be back home each evening by 8 pm. One of those sentenced told Forum 18 he was beaten during pre-trial interrogation "for no reason". The Jehovah's Witnesses fear more trials will follow.
20 July 2007
Turkmenistan's most recently sentenced prisoner of conscience is Jehovah's Witness Nuryagdy Gayyrov, sentenced to one and a half years in a labour camp, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He was sentenced on 18 July for refusing, on grounds of religious conscience, to do compulsory military service. No alternative civilian service is permitted and this is the second time Gayyrov has been jailed for this "offence." The trial took place in secret and, Jehovah's Witnesses stated, "it was only when the police allowed one of us to see him in his cell to tell him his mother had died the night before the trial that anyone knew he'd already been sentenced." Two others - Bayram Ashirgeldyyev and Aleksandr Zuyev – were respectively given 18 month and two year suspended sentences. Gayyrov will serve his sentence in Seydi Labour Camp, where Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky is on a three year term. Since the new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov took over, violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief have significantly increased.
20 July 2007
Jehovah's Witnesses are the latest religious minority in Turkmenistan to have noted to Forum 18 News Service the authorities' use of past "offences" to repress current religious activity. Baptists have also noted this trend as part of the authorities' increasing use of anti-terrorist police and MSS secret police raids, arrests, imprisonment and deportation to punish peaceful religious activity. Since the beginning of 2007, Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 that pressure on their members has increased. Meetings have been raided, literature confiscated and fines imposed. Jehovah's Witnesses still working in state agencies are being held up for harassment and ridicule in front of fellow workers and pressured to leave their jobs, while many have already been dismissed or had their contracts discontinued. The authorities have refused to discuss these cases with Forum 18 and local Jehovah's Witnesses "have not seen any indications of willingness on the part of state agencies to open a dialogue with them to resolve the difficulties."
18 July 2007
Seven weeks after being arrested for religious activity, Baptist pastor Yevgeni Potolov has been deported to Russia, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pastor Potolov's deportation separates him from his wife and seven children. While he was in prison, the MSS secret police gave the Migration Service a document declaring the Pastor to be a "dangerous person." Forum 18 has been unable to find out from officials why Potolov was deported and why arrests, raids and deportations in punishment for peaceful religious activity are increasing. Others deported in earlier years for their religious activity have not been allowed to return to their homes. After Baptist leader Aleksandr Frolov was deported in June 2006, his wife Marina, a Turkmen citizen, appealed for him to be allowed back to live with her and their two young children. But in the face of Turkmenistan's refusal of family re-unification, she has now joined him in Russia. "I hadn't seen my husband for a year and didn't want our family to be split," she told Forum 18.
4 July 2007
Two Jehovah's Witnesses - Nuryagdy Gayyrov and Bayram Ashirgeldyyev – have been arrested in Turkmenistan for refusing to perform compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. They are currently awaiting trial. Gayyrov was jailed in 1999 for one year for the same "crime." The cell where they are being held is "very crowded with 20-30 persons sharing a cell," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. "Between the overcrowding, the sweltering daytime heat, and the lack of adequate ventilation, the conditions in the detention unit are deplorable." There are three other known religious believers in jail for their religious activity, the former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah and two Baptists, Vyacheslav Kalataevsky and Yevgeny Potolov. No officials have been prepared to discuss with Forum 18 the growing numbers of people being detained and jailed for their religious beliefs.