Turkmenistan and Freedom of Conscience

Guest Blog By Jeremy Reynalds, Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service

Visit their web site at: www.assistnews.net

Turkmenistan has jailed two more prisoners of conscience. Protestant Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev has been given a four-year prison term on charges of swindling. The sentence was handed down on Oct. 21.

Turkmenistan is one of the Turkic states in Central Asia. Until 1991, it was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (Turkmen SSR). Turkmenistan is one of the six independent Turkic states. It is bordered by Afghanistan to the southeast, Iran to the south and southwest, Uzbekistan to the east and northeast, Kazakhstan to the north and northwest and the Caspian Sea to the west.

A story by Felix Corley for Forum 18 News Service reported that the pastor’s wife and church members insist the charges have been fabricated to punish him for his religious activity. Judge Agajan Akjaev of Mary Town Court in south-eastern Turkmenistan ruled that Nurliev will serve his sentence in the general regime labor camp in Seydi.This was confirmed by his wife and lawyer from the south-eastern town of Mary.

“The court also ruled that Ilmurad is a drug addict and ordered forced treatment for this in prison,” Maya Nurlieva told Forum 18 News Service. “This is unjust and a slander.”

In reality, Forum 18 said, Nurliev is being treated for diabetes, and his wife has been denied the opportunity to see him or give him his medication since his Aug. arrest.

In mid-September Ahmet Hudaybergenov, a Jehovah’s Witness who conscientiously objects to compulsory military service, was sentenced to 18 months.

Both Nurliev and Hudaybergenov are likely to be sent to Seydi labor camp, where Baptist and Jehovah’s Witness prisoners of conscience have previously been held. There have been indications that some of these prisoners were tortured in the camp with psychotropic (mind-altering) drugs..

“They didn’t even allow him to kiss me.”

Nurlieva said her husband – whom she had not seen since his arrest two months earlier – looked “very, very pale and thin.” She said that he was surrounded at the trial by Ministry of State Security (MSS) secret police officers, who prevented her from coming close to her husband.

“They didn’t even allow him to kiss me,” Forum 18 said Nurlieva complained. She said she recognized one of the officers, who had raided their home a year or two ago.

Because Nurliev’s trial ended with the verdict late in the evening, Forum 18 was unable to reach the court or Prosecutor’s Office officials.

“The whole thing was set up”

Other friends of Nurliev present at the trial told Forum 18, “It was clear the whole thing was set up.”

One Protestant who was not present but who has known Nurliev for many years told Forum 18 he was shocked at the verdict. “He is not a drug addict or a swindler.”

Nurliev’s wife and church members deny the accusations, and strongly question the credibility of prosecution witnesses. Fifteen church members who came to the Church’s Sunday worship service on Aug. 29 – two days after the arrest – signed an appeal to the Prosecutor’s Office testifying to Nurliev’s innocence.

Police applied heavy pressure – including threats that her husband would be fired from his job – against another church member to falsely testify against Nurliev, but she refused to do this.

“But he’s not guilty”

Forum 18 said Nurliev was convicted on charges of swindling a large amount of money from citizens under Article 228, Part 2 of the Criminal Code, which carry a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment and confiscation of property. Money and a certificate as a preacher which he earned in 2006, seized during his arrest, have still not been returned.

Nurlieva told Forum 18 that the court said that if Nurliev pays the 1,600 Manats (561 US Dollars) prosecutors allege he swindled from people who came to his church, he might be eligible for a prisoner amnesty. “But he’s not guilty,” she insisted. The written verdict is due to be handed down soon, and Nurliev has ten days from Oct. 21 to file an appeal, his lawyer told Forum 18. The lawyer added that unless an appeal is successful, Nurliev is almost certain to be sent to the labor camp near the eastern town of Seydi, which is where Jehovah’s Witness prisoners of conscience are currently being held.

Denied registration, blacklisted for exit, imprisoned

Forum 18 said a 45-year-old grandfather of two, Nurliev leads the Light to the World Pentecostal Church in Mary. The church has been repeatedly denied registration since 2007, the same year that Nurliev was placed on the country’s exit blacklist without officials explaining the reason. He was arrested on Aug. 27 and held in a crowded, smoky cell in the two months before the trial.

The trial had been due to begin at 10 a.m. but did not start until 4.30 p.m. and finished in the evening, Forum 18 said Nurlieva added. She said that Prosecutor Ataev, who handled the case in court, produced only the two women who had written accusations against her husband that he had extracted money from them. She said there was no sign of the three men who, the prosecution claimed, had made similar allegations. She added that at the time one of the women claimed to have handed Nurliev some money, she was imprisoned on criminal charges. “So how could she have met my husband and given him money?” Nurlieva asked.

She also complained that of the fifteen church members present in the courtroom who wanted to speak up on Nurliev’s behalf, only three – including herself – were allowed to do so. The official who answered the telephone at the Mary Prosecutor’s Office on Oct. 21 told Forum 18 that it was after office hours and neither Prosecutor Ataev nor other staff were present. The telephone at Mary Court was unanswered when Forum 18 called in the evening in the wake of the trial.

Nurlieva said court officials had refused to let in a diplomat from the United States Embassy who had traveled from the capital Ashgabad to observe the trial. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Centre in Ashgabad told Forum 18 on Oct. 19- soon after the date of the trial became known – that it had “sent a Note Verbale requesting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to facilitate the Center’s attendance at the court trial on Oct. 21 in Mary.” Forum 18 has been unable to find out if the request was granted.

Violations of freedom of religion or belief

Forum 18 said Turkmenistan continues to impose an exit blacklist to cut off religious believers and other civil society activists from personal contacts outside the country. The numbers of Muslims being allowed to take part in the haj pilgrimage to Mecca – which is a requirement in Islam for all who can undertake it – is being restricted to 188 people, including members of the MSS secret police to monitor pilgrims.

When a legal Christian young people’s summer camp was raided, participants – particularly ethnic Turkmens – were arrested, insulted, threatened and had personal Bibles confiscated by police. Camp leaders pointed out their rights to meet under Turkmenistan’s Constitution, but police officers then insulted the Constitution. “To put it mildly, the Constitution is only a scrap of paper for the Turkmen authorities,” one Protestant complained to Forum 18, “while the Church’s legal status means even less.”

Others have been pressured to sign statements that they will not meet for worship, and two Protestants were fired from their jobs because of their faith. Registration – and hence the right to carry out activities legally – remains impossible for many religious communities, and re-registration is being used as a weapon to stop religious activity. Strict censorship and border controls are still being imposed on all religious literature and religious believers.

Religious literature, CDs and DVDs found by police or the MSS secret police in raids on religious meetings in private homes are routinely confiscated. Occasionally it is later returned, though often only after great efforts and pressure from the owners, who risk further punishment by so doing. Bibles and other literature were confiscated from a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ashgabad in March 2008.

See also:  Background information see Forum 18’s religious freedom survey of Turkmenistan at: www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1167

My thanks to Jeremy Reynalds and ASSIST News Service. I publicize this information without affiliation, and without profit. I cannot verify original details, but the repression in Turkmenistan is neither unique, or of concern only to the individuals or religious faiths involved. Freedom of conscience is a universal issue.