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TURKMENISTAN: "Show trial" for conscientious objector

At the trial of the latest Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Akmurad Nurjanov in a courtroom in Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabad, senior school students were present to witness his one-year suspended prison sentence being handed down. "Taking them to the trial appears to have been designed as a warning of what will happen to the young men if they refuse military service," one Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18 News Service, calling the event a "show trial". It remains unknown what restrictions Nurjanov will have to live under during his sentence. Five other Jehovah's Witnesses are serving labour camp sentences of between 18 months and two years for refusing compulsory military service. The day after Nurjanov's sentence, another Ashgabad court rejected fellow Jehovah's Witness Vladimir Nuryllayev's appeal in his absence against his four-year prison term on charges of "spreading pornography". Community members say the charges were fabricated to punish him for his faith. The judge screamed at his fellow believers to leave the court house, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18.

TURKMENISTAN: Is publishing religious poetry a crime?

After Protestant Begjan Shirmedov tried to print copies of a small book of his religious poetry, a local religious affairs official waiting for him at the printing shop took him to the Police 6th Department, responsible for counter-terrorism and organised crime work. There the 74-year-old poet was questioned for six hours, forced to write a statement and banned from travelling outside his home region of Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan while his case is investigated, Protestants told Forum 18. Separately, other local Protestants in Dashoguz have been questioned over printing religious materials. It remains unclear if any will face charges. Turkmenistan imposes strict censorship on religious literature. Meanwhile, the appeal of Jehovah's Witness Vladimir Nuryllayev against his four-year prison sentence is due at Ashgabad City Court on 14 February. His fellow Jehovah's Witnesses vigorously deny charges he was "distributing pornography" and insist he is being punished for his faith. Seven other religious prisoners of conscience are known to be held.

TURKMENISTAN: Four-year prison sentence after "secret trial"

After a "secret trial" in the capital Ashgabad on 18 January which his family and friends knew nothing about, Jehovah's Witness Vladimir Nuryllayev was sentenced to four years' imprisonment on charges of "spreading pornography", a court official told Forum 18 News Service. "All this has been done because he is a Jehovah's Witness," fellow Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. "Vladimir is a highly moral and deeply devout person and has nothing to do with pornography." The Investigator refused to discuss the case. An unverified report says a Muslim may have been sentenced in 2011 on similar charges for distributing religious discs. Eight other religious prisoners of conscience are known to be in labour camp. Recently freed prisoners have testified of beatings and punishments of solitary confinement. "A member of the Special Police Force (OMON) entered my cell on two occasions and beat me on the head and neck with his baton," one recalled. A Deputy Justice Minister claimed to a United Nations Committee in November 2011 that Turkmenistan has no political prisoners. The UN Committee called on Turkmenistan to end the "various restrictions impacting negatively on the freedom of religion".

UZBEKISTAN: New haj pilgrimage, same old restrictions

The Uzbek authorities have again this year imposed severe restrictions on how many pilgrims could take part in this year's haj pilgrimage, now underway in Saudi Arabia. Only 5,080 out of a potential quota of about 28,000 travelled to Mecca. About as many pilgrims travelled from Kyrgyzstan as from Uzbekistan, more than five times more populous. An official of one Sergeli District mahalla (neighbourhood), with between 3,000 and 7,000 residents, told Forum 18 News Service that "our mahalla will be able to send pilgrims only in 2012. Several people are on the waiting list but maybe only one will go." As before, an "unwritten instruction" banned would-be pilgrims under the age of 45, officials of a local mahalla committee in Tashkent told Forum 18. Pilgrims faced official screening, while secret police officers reportedly accompany the pilgrims. An Imam outside Tashkent, who did not wish to be named for fear of state reprisals, complained that "unofficial payments" more than doubled the cost of the haj. "The number of applicants would be much, much higher if the cost was not so high," he lamented to Forum 18.

TURKMENISTAN: Maximum sentence for latest conscientious objector

Jehovah's Witness Mahmud Hudaybergenov was given the maximum two-year labour camp sentence in early August in Turkmenistan's north-eastern city of Dashoguz for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, local Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. He was prevented from lodging an appeal. He is the eighth current known imprisoned conscientious objector, while the ninth known religious prisoner of conscience is a Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev. Another Jehovah's Witness given a one-year labour camp sentence on the same charges in July was freed under amnesty in late August. Meanwhile, one Ashgabad-based observer told Forum 18 the number of Muslims the Turkmen authorities are likely to allow to travel on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca in November is "about 180", out of a quota believed to be 5,000. While one regional state religious affairs official told Forum 18 pilgrims' documentation has been prepared and sent to Ashgabad, no official would give Forum 18 the number. The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Ashgabad told Forum 18 the number of haj visas it is issuing is "secret information".

TURKMENISTAN: You're not going on a summer holiday

Members of a Baptist Church from northern Turkmenistan had just arrived for a shared summer holiday in Avaza on the Caspian Sea when the local police officer, eight officials in civilian clothes and the imam (who is also the state-appointed religious affairs official) raided their accommodation, Protestants told Forum 18 News Service. The officials and imam insulted and threatened the visitors over three days because of their faith and church members had to abandon their holiday. Meanwhile, none of the eight known religious prisoners of conscience (one Protestant and seven Jehovah's Witnesses) is known to have been freed in the presidentially-decreed late August amnesty. Not freed was Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev, who has spent a year in custody on what church members say were trumped-up charges to punish him for leading his church. His wife is "so disappointed," one of their friends told Forum 18. "She again sits at home and cries."

TURKMENISTAN: Eleven religious prisoners of conscience in one camp

The arrival at the Seydi Labour Camp in eastern Turkmenistan of Sunet Japbarov and Dovran Matyakubov, Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors, brought to eleven the number of religious prisoners of conscience held in this camp, Forum 18 News Service notes. Ten are conscientious objectors. Japbarov and Matyakubov each received 18-month prison terms in December 2010 for refusing compulsory military service. Concern is mounting among his friends for another of the religious prisoners in the Seydi Camp, Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev. The Labour Camp administration has refused to allow him medical treatment for his diabetes, for which he regularly visited a hospital before his August 2010 arrest. "Our first aim is restoring his health," his friends told Forum 18. Police who summoned members of his unregistered congregation warned: "if we find out the church has been meeting, we'll do the same to you as we did to Ilmurad".

TURKMENISTAN: Literature import controls lifted for Orthodox - but not for others

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has noted that Turkmen government controls on importing religious material for use in their parishes in Turkmenistan have been lifted, yet confiscation of religious literature from residents returning to the country continues, members of a variety of faiths told Forum 18 News Service. Although isolated instances of confiscations of such literature on leaving Turkmenistan have also occurred earlier, this has stepped up in recent months. Patriarch Kirill also said discussions with the Foreign Ministry are underway over building a new Orthodox cathedral in Ashgabad. Planned in the 1990s, it was never built and the site was later used for another building. Bayram Samuradov, chief architect of Ashgabad, told Forum 18 that a provisional new site has been earmarked for the cathedral. "It is more beautiful and appropriate than the old site, and is located in an area with a large European population," he told Forum 18. He refused to discuss why other faiths cannot build places of worship in Ashgabad. "That's not a question for me."

TURKMENISTAN: "Principles of mercy, justice and humanism" fail to free religious prisoners of conscience

None of the nine known religious prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan was freed in the February amnesty decreed "on the principles of mercy, justice and humanism". Nor were three Jehovah's Witnesses serving suspended sentences. Sentenced in December 2010 to an 18-month prison term for refusing compulsory military service was 19-year-old Jehovah's Witness Matkarim Aminov, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. One year after the United Nations wrote an "urgent appeal" to the Turkmen government over the continued imprisonment of conscientious objectors, the government has failed to respond to the UN. Ata, an aide to Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, said the Ministry is "not competent" to explain why it has not responded. Imprisoned Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev is still being denied a Bible. His wife Maya Nurlieva told Forum 18 she treasures his personal Bible at home as something precious to him which she can hold in his absence.

TURKMENISTAN: "I don't know how these people are going to pay the fines"

After a 22 January raid on Protestants in a private flat in Turkmenabad in eastern Turkmenistan, a court has imposed heavy fines on at least five of those present, with threats to fine about a dozen more, Protestants who asked not to be identified for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 News Service. All are thought to have been fined under Article 205 Part 2 of the Administrative Code, which punishes "support for or participation in the activity of a religious group of religious organisation not officially registered in accordance with the legally established procedure". Two children present were forced to stand before their entire schools and publicly insulted. Victims of other raids are often afraid to have their cases publicised, for fear of attracting further state harassment. Local people told Forum 18 that the fines represent between one and two months' average wages for those in an average state job. "I don't know how these people are going to pay the fines," one told Forum 18. State officials refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. The Administrative Code is being re-drafted, but previous legislative changes have not improved freedom of religion or belief in practice.

TURKMENISTAN: "Ilmurad will pray and praise God at Christmas in the labour camp"

Turkmenistan has not released any of its nine known religious prisoners of conscience in its latest prisoner amnesty, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The latest prisoner of conscience sentenced for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief - Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev, given a four year jail term with forcible "medical" treatment in October – is amongst those excluded. Among the other prisoners of conscience also excluded is Ahmet Hudaybergenov, a Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector sentenced to one and a half years in September. Pastor Nurliev's wife Maya – who is under MSS secret police surveillance – told Forum 18 that her husband has been sent to Seydi Labour Camp. Previous Baptists and Jehovah's Witness prisoners in the Camp appear to have been tortured with psychotropic [mind-altering] drugs, and a former prisoner of conscience described conditions in the Camp as "like something from the Middle Ages". Maya Nurlieva told Forum 18 that "Ilmurad will pray and praise God at Christmas in the labour camp – he has composed hymns and songs in Turkmen and Russian".

TURKMENISTAN: Will government respond to OSCE call for Religion Law changes?

Nearly three years after Turkmenistan's government declared "reform" to the Religion Law to be a "priority", the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has published a legal review of the current Law criticising many of its provisions for violating international human rights standards. The Review calls for many changes, including an end to the ban on unregistered religious activity and on the private teaching of religion. Officials in the capital Ashgabad refused to discuss whether they will amend the Law in line with the OSCE recommendations. Pirnazar Hudainazarov, Chair of the Mejlis (Parliament) Committee on the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, refused absolutely to discuss the OSCE review. He referred Forum 18 News Service to the Foreign Ministry, but no-one there was prepared to discuss this. Turkmen citizens have told Forum 18 that they remain sceptical that legal changes will end continuing state violations of freedom of religion or belief, They comment that the actions of officials directly attacking people exercising the internationally recognised right to freedom of religion or belief, and other fundamental human rights, are more important than Turkmenistan's published laws.