Showing posts with label Turkmenistan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Turkmenistan. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Turkmenistan: mounting repression

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 072 | Wed 08 Sep 2010


In 1985 USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev appointed a colourless Soviet apparatchik Saparmurat Niyazov to head the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. When Turkmenistan became independent in 1991, Niyazov -- who automatically became president -- transformed into an eccentric and reclusive megalomaniac. Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan became one of the world's most repressive and Stalinist states. The all-pervasive cult of Niyazov -- rivalled only by North Korea's cult of Kim -- led to jokes about 'Weirdistan'. But life under Niyazov was anything but a joke. Suffocating religious repression, backed up with violent systematic persecution, was the norm.

When Niyazov died suddenly on 21 December 2006, many Christians hoped that a new era had dawned. Initially the signs were positive, and relief mingled enthusiastically with hope. (Rigged) elections were held in February 2007. There was constitutional reform. The 'elected' president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (formerly Niyazov's dentist), was talking to the West. There was a new openness.

However, as time has passed it has become increasingly evident that the only difference between Niyazov and Berdimuhamedov is that Berdimuhamedov is a smarter politician. He immediately moved to erect facades and create illusions so as to attract investment and avoid sanctions. However, as new (post August 2008) geo-strategic realities kick in, he realises he no longer needs to play these games.

As Turkmenistan's President for life, Berdimuhamedov violates the constitution with impunity. According to Annasoltan, the 'neweurasia' chief blogger for Turkmenistan, the cult of Niyazov is being replaced with the cult of Berdimuhamedov. While the famous rotating gold statue of Niyazov was recently dismantled, a larger and more expensive new monument devoted to Berdimuhamedov will soon be erected in another part of the capital. Niyazov's portraits are being replaced with portraits of Berdimuhamedov, who presents himself as the divine saviour of all Turkmen. World leaders, he maintains, are insanely jealous. Accordingly, everything 'foreign' and non-traditional is treated as seditious.

Despite being gas-rich, the country is wracked with poverty. Yet Berdimuhamedov invests in grandiose building projects designed to create the illusion of success and prosperity. (Currently planned is a $2 billion Olympic Village in Ashgabat -- not that the Olympics are coming to Ashgabat any time soon.) Criticism is treason. All religion that is 'foreign', non-traditional and not centred on Berdimuhamedov is repressed and persecuted, most commonly through the imprisonment of religious leaders on false criminal charges. There can be no justice for, in violation of the constitution, Berdimuhamedov has personally appointed the judiciary to do his bidding.

Forum 18 reports that on 22 July Turkmen police raided a church-run summer youth camp in Sekiz-Yab, taking 47 Christians into custody on the pretext of investigating a local murder. Once inside Geoketpe police station the pretext evaporated, Bibles were confiscated and the believers were interrogated about who converted them and who funds their activities. They were photographed and fingerprinted while copies were made of their passports. After being detained overnight, the group left feeling greatly intimidated.

Also in July, members of a Baptist church in Dashoguz (or Dashhowuz) were pressured to sign statements that they would no longer attend the church. Elsewhere, two Protestant Christians were sacked from their employment because of their faith. On 27 August Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev was arrested and charged with swindling more than US$2.4 million from three church members who were coerced into making false statements against him. Large-scale swindling attracts a sentence of up to five years' imprisonment. Another church member, Kristina Petrova, has been ordered to testify against Pastor Nurliev or else her husband (who is not a church member) will lose his job, leaving them destitute.


* provide Pastor Nurliev with words in court and in detention that will bring glory to God; may he know peace through trusting God, and may God bring justice and glory into the situation.

'You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.' (Isaiah 26:3 ESV)

* draw close all those Christians who have been threatened, intimidated and afflicted by the regime; may they grow in faith and sanctification as they find sanctuary in God's presence.

* use these situations, where injustice and cruelty are juxtaposed with innocence and grace, to awaken many Turkmen (89 percent Muslim) to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

* intervene and deal with President Berdimuhamedov and his repressive regime, that religious liberty might become a reality in long-suffering Turkmenistan.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Turkmenistan: religious minorities effectively banned.

Date: Tuesday 18 November 2003
Subj: Turkmenistan: religious minorities effectively banned.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal


It was back in 1999 that the Turkmenistan government declared its intention to "strangle" minority faiths. All foreign Christians were expelled and the persecution of national believers, especially ethnic Turkmen, intensified intolerably.

While unregistered minority religious groups were not illegal, members of unregistered groups were scorned, harassed and persecuted, particularly by the National Security Committee (security police - KNB, formerly KGB). Christians have been beaten, tortured, had their homes confiscated and been driven into exile. For all its boasting of freedom of belief, Turkmenistan severely abuses religious liberty.

Turkmenistan has now replaced its highly repressive 1991 religion law with an even more repressive version. The new religion law, signed by President Niyazov on 21 October, came into effect on 10 November 2003. Unregistered religious activity is now officially banned as illegal. Members of minority faiths (Baptists, Pentecostals, Jews, Adventists etc), who have long been subject to administrative punishments, are now vulnerable to criminal charges.


Article 8 of the new religion law states, as previously, that registration with the Justice Ministry requires 500 adult citizens living inside the country. This requirement is so restrictive that only the Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox will be able to achieve registration. Evangelicals that minister to ethnic Turkmen find it doubly difficult to find the 500 members necessary for registration. To protect ethnic Turkmen believers from persecution, and to protect congregations that minister to ethnic Turkmen from harassment, evangelical churches will often not list the names of ethnic Turkmen on their rolls.

Article 11 states, "The activity of unregistered religious organizations is banned. An individual carrying out activity in the name of an unregistered religious organization bears responsibility in accordance with the laws of Turkmenistan."

Article 14 gives the Justice Ministry the right to cancel a group's registration on a wide range of bases, from "interference in family relations leading to the breakdown of the family", to "violation of social security and social order".

Article 15 requires all registered religious organizations receiving money or other support from foreign donors to notify the Justice Ministry.

Article 20 requires all religious literature imported by registered religious organizations to be approved by the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs.

Article 6 states, "The teaching of spiritual beliefs on a private basis is banned and bears responsibility in the manner established by the law of Turkmenistan."


The criminal code has been amended to provide punishments for those breaking the law by engaging in unregistered religious activity. According to Forum 18, "The new article 223 part 2 of the Criminal Code, also signed by President Niyazov on 21 October, punishes 'violation of the law on religious organisations'. Those breaking the law who have already been punished within the space of a year under the Code of Administrative Offences 'are to be punished by a fine of between ten and thirty average monthly wages, or corrective labour for a term of up to one year, or deprivation of freedom for a term of up to six months, with confiscation of illegally received means.' Such criminal punishments could be imposed on those who lead unregistered religious communities or those who teach religion in such communities." (Link 1)


It is important to note here that Turkmenistan's prisons are absolutely appalling. Turkmenistan is thought to have one of the highest per-capita prison population rates in the world. Most prisons are situated in the desert where the temperature can climb to 55 degrees Celsius, and they usually house up to ten times the number of inmates they were built to house. What's more, provisions are supplied for only the number of inmates the prison was built to hold.

Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, a former political prisoner (now living in Europe), reported to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty last year (21 Nov 2002) that where he was imprisoned near Turkmenbashi City for three and a half years, there were 8,000 inmates but only one water faucet. "We had really no food to speak of in our prison. They gave us food but first you had to clean the cockroaches and worms out of it, then you could eat." Since Turkmenistan became independent in 1991 no monitoring group has been permitted to monitor prison conditions.

We must never underestimate what prison means for a Turkmenistan believer.


Forum 18 quotes Murad Karryev, deputy head of the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs, as saying during a half-hour television programme on the new law on 7 November that there is "complete freedom of belief for all sects and confessions" as long as they are registered officially. "We do not intervene in the affairs of religious sects and confessions if they are legally registered at the Ministry of Justice."

While this statement is no doubt true, the repressive restrictions make a mockery of religious freedom.

Joseph K. Grieboski, the President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy condemned the new religion law saying, "The passage of this law uses quasi-democratic means to eliminate basic rights ideally guaranteed by the state. The Government of Turkmenistan has ignored its commitments to international agreements, flown in the face of international norms, and ignored the basic rights due the citizens of Turkmenistan." (Link 2)


Forum 18 reports, "Speaking on television on 22 October, Justice Minister Taganmyrat Gochyev said tighter control of religious groups and public organisations was needed to address security concerns."

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty adds, "Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project based in Budapest, points out that 'the new religion law and criminal code amendment are consistent with a larger government effort to bring Turkmen society even further under its control.

"'It's worth noting,' Dailey told RFE/RL, 'that this new revised law on religion and religious organizations in Turkmenistan was signed into law at exactly the same time that a parallel law on NGOs, on nongovernmental organizations, was also signed into law. And the spirit of both new laws is very similar. It is to provide administrative oversight headed by the president himself of nongovernmental activities, whether they be religious or civic in nature.'

"Dailey adds that it is likely not a coincidence that the laws came into force in the days preceding the first anniversary of the 25 November alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov." (Link 3)

- Elizabeth Kendal


1) New religion law defies international human rights agreements
By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service11 Nov 2003

2) Institute Condemns New Turkmenistan Religion Law
Washington, DC, November 11, 2003

3) Ashgabat Takes Further Steps To Suppress Religious Faiths
By Antoine Blua, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 14 Nov 2003

Friday, January 24, 2003

Turkmenistan: "Cracks in the marble".

Date: Friday 24 January 2003
Subj: Turkmenistan: "Cracks in the marble".
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator


On 25 November 2002, gunman opened fire on the car carrying Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurad Niyazov. Afterwards, President Niyazov told an emergency cabinet meeting that a truck had pulled out and blocked the path of his car. Attackers then opened fire on the presidential convoy from the truck and two other vehicles. Amazingly, the President was not even injured in the attack, which he has labelled as an assassination attempt.

In fact, the "assassination" was so brilliantly blundered that some observers and analysts suspect Niyazov may have set it up himself. Without a moments delay he began to name political opponents as suspects. A massive purge ensued, quickly and mercilessly, on political opponents, discontents and foreigners, attracting international attention.

On 17 January 2003 the Brussels based International Crisis Group (ICG) ( released a report on Turkmenistan entitled, "Cracks in the Marble: Turkmenistan's Failing Dictatorship." A summary of the report can be found at the link given below. It contains a further link to the full 51-page report, available in pdf format.

I highly recommend the full 51-page report to anyone working on religious liberty issues in Turkmenistan. It is comprehensive and yet concise, and while it gives only a small space to religious persecution, it gives good political background and goes into great and fascinating detail about the failing power structures within present-day Turkmenistan.


Religious persecution is mentioned in the summary. "Under Niyazov's repressive rule, alternative political parties have been outlawed, there are no free media outlets, access to the Internet is severely restricted, and non-official religious groups are persecuted."

Regarding persecution of Christians, ICG's full report states, "Despite constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, non-traditional denominations are barred from basic activities. The law on religious organisations requires that religious groups must have at least 500 members in each locality in which they wish to register in order to gain legal status. In practice, this means that, unlike Sunni Muslims and Russian Christian Orthodox believers, members of the Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Pentecostalist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'I and Hare Krishna churches are unable to register and are, therefore, persecuted by the KNB." (page 25)

(NB - the KNB is the "Komitet Natsionalnoi Bezopastnosti" or Committee for National Security - successor to the Soviet KGB.)

"Non-Russian-Orthodox Christian groups such as Baptists have also suffered harassment and persecution, including torture of clergy and confiscation of Property." (page 26)


The report describes the KNB and prison system that Turkmenistan's Christians know so well.

"The KNB was given absolute power over other state institutions to carry out its work and enjoyed immunity, with no real accountability under the justice system, until March 2002. It is believed to employ up to 3,000 members and a much wider network of informers. Its methods of control include the collection of compromising materials on potential opponents and blackmail, but it also frequently resorts to harassment, abductions, imprisonment, torture and assassination by special agents." (page 6)

"Persons detained by the KNB are either sent to prisons or immediately to labour camps where mortality rates are extremely high. Prisoners in these camps are repeatedly beaten and tortured by guards and forced to carry out strenuous work in appalling conditions. Batyr Mukhamedov, a journalist who was imprisoned for 27 weeks in labour camps, described daily cases of abuse, including deaths caused by beatings with metal instruments. An estimated 20,000 people - both criminals and regime opponents are imprisoned in camps, including camps for women and psychiatric hospitals." (page 7)

It is sobering to consider that peaceful Christians such as Baptist lay-preacher Shageldy Atakov, have suffered through the prison and labour camp system, and young men such as Protestant pastor Shokhrat Piriyev and his colleagues have been tortured almost to death at the hands of the KNB, dispossessed of everything they owned, for possession of Jesus videos. Turkmenistan's Church has lived with this terror for many years.


What is most interesting to know is that the KNB may be turning against President Niyazov. In his paranoia over absolute power, he has been purging the KNB ruthlessly.

"Niyazov began his move against the KNB in March 2002, when he dismissed Mukhammed Nazarov, the organisation's head and hitherto one of his most loyal supporters. Nazarov was arrested and sentenced to twenty years in prison. A further 60 officers are also believed to be in prison, and some reports suggest that at least four officers have been executed, and 80 per cent of the leadership of the KNB has been affected by the purge." (page 9)

"Despite Niyazov's efforts, the KNB still appears to represent a potential source of opposition. The purges have provoked widespread opposition, according to those with contacts in the security forces. One interviewee says: 'The officers are extremely resentful because they are now falling victims to the system that they applied to society for years: arrests, torture, imprisonment, and confiscation of property. They realise that they have lost their protected position and now have nothing else to lose.'

"According to another observer, 'Many KNB agents have destroyed files, and refuse to follow orders from Turkmenbashi (Niyazov). Basically, the KNB is not functioning any more'." (page 9)


Cracks in the Marble: Turkmenistan's Failing Dictatorship.
International Crisis Group.
Osh/Brussels, 17 January 2003