24 November 2003
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
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
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'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 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
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
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
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
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."
4 August 2003
Two signing deaf and speech impaired Baptist women are the latest victims of Turkmenistan's campaign against religious minorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Olga Shchedrova has been fined, had money stolen from her by officials, and suffered the same officials' attempts to humiliate her. But she still refused to deliver court summonses to other Christians. Nezire Kamalova has been threatened with 15 days' imprisonment for non-payment of a fine and her mother is now threatening to send her to non-Christian relatives in a distant village, to prevent Kamalova attending Christian services in Turkmenabad.
18 July 2003
High Turkmen visa fees make it prohibitively expensive for many Uzbek Muslims living close to the western border with Turkmenistan from crossing over to visit family graveyards and places of pilgrimage, Forum 18 News Service has learnt in the Khorezm region of western Uzbekistan. "We can see our forebears' graves through the barbed wire, but if we want to reach them and perform religious rituals, we have to pay money to the Turkmens," the imam of Manak village, Nodyr Formanov, told Forum 18. "The visa regime between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan clearly encroaches on believers' rights," complained Vladimir Artemyev, director of the Uzbek branch of a UNESCO project for the preservation of ancient monuments.
9 July 2003
Before the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief on 17-18 July 2003, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org/ surveys some of the more serious abuses of religious freedom that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration.