In 2001, Turkmenistan isolated itself from the international community and continued to stifle all forms of dissent, to hound religious and ethnic minorities, and to exercise strict control over all media and expression.
President Saparmurad Niazov's cult of personality reached new levels. "President for Life" in the year 2000, in February he declared his intention to remain president only until 2010, when he promised multicandidate elections without opposition candidates. On October 19, the government's highest legislative body declared that Rukhnama (Book of the Soul), written by President Niazov, was a holy text, and officials indicated that it would be comparable to the Bible and the Koran.
In January, President Niazov added about 1,000 agents to the National Security Committee (or KNB), bringing their number to 2,500. Successor to the KGB, the KNB exercised truly pervasive surveillance over the population, using intimidation, searches without warrants, arbitrary detention, and torture to dissuade all dissent.
In response to international pressure, Turkmen authorities released in December 2000 two dissidents, Nurberdi Nurmamedov and Pirkuli Tangrikuliev, imprisoned since January 2000 and August 1999, respectively. President Niazov signed a decree pardoning the two after their videotaped statements of "repentance" were broadcast on television.
Mukhmatkuli Aimuradov, a political prisoner since 1994, continued to serve an eighteen-year prison sentence. Notwithstanding his worsening health, the authorities limited family visits and delivery of food parcels and medicines, and denied his petition to have his sentence reduced.
Since 1997, the government has officially allowed only two religious denominations, Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, and viciously persecuted those who followed other faiths, which were considered illegal. Religious persecution worsened after a January 26 presidential speech tasked the KNB with reinvigorating the struggle against "various non-native religious groups intent on fracturing our society." Pentacostalists, Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas bore the brunt of this new crackdown. Police and KNB agents interrogated and intimidated worshippers, confiscated their literature, and prevented group worship. The government also continued to deport religious activists who were not citizens of Turkmenistan.
At least fifteen believers were tortured or ill-treated during police and KNB interrogations about their beliefs or "illegal" religious activities. On March 11, KNB agents detained seven Hare Krishnas at a wedding in Mari, and beat them on the soles of their feet to punish them for adherence to an "incorrect" faith. A court sentenced them to five days of detention on trumped-up charges of "hooliganism."
In January 2001, President Niazov claimed that in 2000 law enforcement agents had confiscated 350,000 religious books and 80,000 cassettes that were "incompatible with our faith." In March, authorities banned the sale of Bibles in Russian or Turkmen.
By March the government had closed the last Pentacostalist and Baptist houses of worship. Several families were evicted from their homes in retaliation for praying at unsanctioned gatherings.
In February, Shahgildy Atakov, an imprisoned Baptist pastor convicted in 1999 on unfounded charges of alleged financial misdealings, was transferred in serious condition to a prison hospital in Mary. The authorities had reportedly offered to release Atakov provided he take an oath of allegiance to the president. When he refused, state agents beat him and forcibly medicated him with psychotropic drugs. The government denied Atakov's ill-treatment but ignored diplomats' requests to meet with him. On March 23, Atakov was transferred to the remote Turkmenbashi prison facility. Also in March, his wife, Artigul Atakova, and five children were forcibly relocated to Kaakhka, where local authorities reportedly threatened to deny parental rights to Atakova unless her children participated in the school ritual of swearing allegiance to the president.
At least six Jehovah's Witnesses were serving prison sentences, mostly for conscientious objection to military service. Authorities in some cases reportedly brought new charges against conscientious objectors when they finished out their terms.
Islamic groups also suffered state harassment. On June 25, President Niazov stated that he had ordered the official head Turkmen Muslims to close the last madrassah (religious school) in the northern city of Dashoguz. Only the department of theology at Ashgabad University, which is under strict police surveillance, had the right to teach Islamic studies. The Shiite community had been denied registration since 1997, although some communities had permission to gather for prayer on major holidays.
Law enforcement agencies stepped up pressure on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In November 2000, a special commission in Turkmenbashi composed of the KNB, procuracy, tax police, and local government officials launched "inspections" to intimidate thirty NGOs that had participated in a seminar on democratization sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Umid (Hope), the NGO that had organized the conference, was forced to cease its operations. From July through September, the Ministry of Justice and procuracy repeatedly summoned forty-eight environmental and humanitarian NGOs, some of which had previously been denied registration, to warn them that any activities pursued by unregistered NGOS were illegal.
The government systematically stifled all media freedoms, and imposed prepublication state censorship. The authorities forced people to subscribe to Turkmen newspapers, even if they did not speak Turkmen. In March state libraries were instructed to confiscate the works of about twenty authors who either "inaccurately depicted" the country's history or had emigrated for political reasons.
The government went to extraordinary lengths to block all information about the human toll of the December 6, 2000, earthquake in western Turkmenistan. President Niazov publicly stated that no one had perished, though dozens were reported dead, and declined all foreign assistance.
Beginning in the third quarter of 2000, the government took unprecedented action to curtail freedom of movement. It declared two of Turkmenistan's five provinces "closed"; travel there required a special pass. In several of the country's largest cities, local authorities banned the sale of homes to residents of other cities and strictly enforced propiska (obligatory residence permits) rules. Several people were denied permission to travel abroad on political or religious grounds. In 2001, the government gave few visas to foreigners, and in numerous cases KNB agents warned individuals not to issue invitations to their friends and relatives abroad, required for Turkmen visas.
To discourage contact with foreigners, on June 4 President Niazov signed an order requiring a fee of U.S. $50,000 to register a marriage with a foreigner.
President Niazov's grandiose construction projects for Ashgabad required the destruction of many homes, and according to diplomats, homeowners in numerous cases were not paid the full amount of promised compensation, or received nothing. Those who had the right to alternative housing in some case did not receive it.
In December 2001, President Niazov amnestied 11,774 of the country's 19,000 prisoners, but prisons remained overcrowded and horrific. Corruption pervaded the amnesty process.
The government does not allow domestic human rights NGOs. Due to emigration, Russian Community, an unregistered entity, collapsed. The organization had defended the rights of ethnic minorities and assisted them in emigration matters. On May 2, KNB agents interrogated one of its former activists, Viacheslav Mamedov, after he visited the OSCE in Ashgabad. They accused him of giving the OSCE a "political document" and banned him from traveling to the capital to meet with foreigners without first informing them.
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