As a coalition of non-governmental organizations, we are writing to express our concern over the dire and worsening situation of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, and to urge you to secure meaningful, measurable, and sustainable short-term improvements. If no such improvements are achieved, we call on you to designate Turkmenistan as a “country of particular concern” this year under the terms of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA).
The widespread repression of free religious expression in Turkmenistan has been comprehensively and amply documented by the U.S. Department of State in its annual International Religious Freedom Reports and Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and by the independent watchdog group Forum 18 News Service and other rights monitors. These excellent reports obviate the need for detailing the systematic violations in Turkmenistan here.
We note only that there is no freedom of religion in Turkmenistan, that the situation is worsening, and there have been severe violations of religious freedom as defined in the statute. Evidence that the situation has worsened recently includes:
- Followers of minority religions – both registered and unregistered – are repeatedly harassed by police and security in the form of house raids, confiscation of religious materials, threats, and beatings. In some cases, these include followers of groups that were registered since the president introduced simplified registration procedures at the U.S. government’s request;
- Several mosques have been unjustifiably demolished;
- President Niyazov publicly expressed the wish that no more mosques be built in Turkmenistan, coinciding with the completion of the building of the country’s largest mosque, whose construction adheres to state dictums;
- Islamic religious training has been effectively eliminated in Turkmenistan through drastic cut-backs in faculty and students at the country’s last remaining Muslim theological department; and
- President Niyazov announced that he is preparing to introduce a forthcoming list of accepted Islamic rituals which Muslims must observe.
Indeed, we would argue that state control of religious expression in Turkmenistan has reached a new height. The state no longer simply controls religion; it is actively trying to eliminate even state-controlled religions in order to establish a new religion based on the personality of the president. For example:
- State propaganda refers to the president as a prophet, and glorification of the president is required as the preface to all prayers;
- Citizens are required to refer to the president’s historical and political book as the “Holy” Ruhnama and to study, discuss in specially convened groups, memorize, and integrate it into their daily lives, much as religious groups do with their holy texts;
- The president has built the region’s largest mosque, but the mosque has aroused concern among Muslims that it features quotations from the secular president’s “holy” book, Ruhnama (Book of the Soul);
- Places of worship in Turkmenistan are required to have a “president’s corner,” featuring images of the president and a copy of his “holy” book, much as icons, crosses, holy remains, and holy books are present in places of worship; and
- In February of this year Muslim leaders from across the country were told by the state Council for Religious Affairs that it was “a priority task for clergymen to disseminate the lofty ideas in our great leader's sacred books on the duties of parents and children." (Forum 18)
Failure to comply with these and other requirements of the presidential personality cult has resulted in denial of employment and education; harassment; firings of relatives; threats of rape; severe beatings; and the arrest, imprisonment, and internal exile of several imams and the arrest of the former chief Mufti of Turkmenistan. Presidential restrictions on schools, places of worship, and the workplace insure that all citizens are affected to some degree, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Among the statutorily “severe” violations that have been committed recently are:
Arbitrary detention and arrest
Former Mufti Nasrulla ibn Ibadulla was arbitrarily arrested in 2003 and is now being held on a 22-year prison sentence on charges that were not publicly disclosed, but were believed to have been motivated by his non-compliance with the practice of Islam as allowed by President Niyazov. This year, the government continues to bar disclosure of the charges against him and to deny him the right to even humanitarian visits.
According to an October 2004 Forum 18 report, Jehovah’s Witness Kurban Zakirov was reportedly subjected to injections of psychotropic substances during his three-year detention. The report cites the Jehovah’s Witnesses as reporting that “His arms are covered all over by injection marks and his behaviour has become odd.” They added that “his mental and emotional wellbeing has been ruined and his personality distorted." Baptist Shagildy Atakov was also reportedly subjected to this form of torture during his three-year arbitrary incarceration.
The fact that these violations were initiated in the previous designation cycles indicates only that CPC designation should have been authorized earlier and that it is now overdue. We also wish to underscore that a country that prohibits all free exercise of religious rights, as Turkmenistan does, must surely be considered a severe violator.
Bad Faith on the Part of the Government of Turkmenistan
That religious freedom violations persist and worsen is clear proof of the central government’s continuing tolerance, at minimum, of such violations, and of its lack of commitment to ending them.
The registration issue may be the best example of the government’s bad-faith implementation of reforms urged by the U.S. government. Unregistered religious activities – for example by unregistered Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses – remain illegal under the Administrative Code, in defiance of the country’s international human rights obligations. Following registration, the Hare Krishna community in Ashgabat was nonetheless barred from celebrating one of their major festivals, Rama Navami. Registered Baptist, Hare Krishna and Adventist communities have all encountered problems in finding places to rent for worship. The ban on using private homes for religious meetings is a major barrier to the functioning of these religious communities. The services of registered Baptists in the towns of Dashoguz and Mary have been attacked by police, reportedly on the pretext that Baptists are registered only in the capital, not throughout Turkmenistan. Baptists strongly dispute this claim, but even registered Baptists in the capital have yet to receive permission to meet for worship. The bitter experience of newly registered communities, such as the Hare Krishna, has undoubtedly deterred unregistered communities from registering and casts doubt on the benefit that registration can bring in an overwhelmingly hostile political environment.
Proposed Benchmarks for Improvement
In light of the effective use of IRFA leverage in the past with respect to the government of Turkmenistan, we urge you to test the government’s resolve by asking it to meet the following suggested benchmarks:
1. The government of Turkmenistan must cease all forms of harassment and undue interference in the activities of religious groups or individuals for their religious beliefs immediately.
2. Тhe government of Turkmenistan must amend the law “On Religion and Religious Organizations” of November 2003 and all relevant legislative acts and administrative orders in order to remove all undue restrictions on religious activity, including the ban on religious gatherings, unregistered groups, independent religious education, and others. Punishments and penalties for affiliation with unregistered religious groups must also be removed from the Civil-Administrative Code of the Republic of Turkmenistan (Article 205).
3. The former Mufti Nasrulla ibn Ibadulla must be released from prison immediately and unconditionally.
Failure to give Turkmenistan CPC status this year without achievement of these and other meaningful and sustainable improvements risks exposing last year’s threats of designation as meaningless. This, in turn, would jeopardize the credibility of IRFA’s unique, proven leverage with respect to Turkmenistan and other countries in the future. It would also cast doubt among the citizens of an overwhelmingly Muslim country on the U.S. government’s credibility as a champion of religious freedom.
Like many concerned with religious freedom in Turkmenistan, we welcomed the government of Turkmenistan’s release from prison of ten conscientious objectors (six in June 2004, and four more in April 2005) and hailed its decision in March 2004 to lower the number of signatures required for the registration process. We were likewise encouraged when several small groups that had previously been denied registration soon thereafter became registered. It is clear that these achievements were secured thanks to the U.S. government’s fair, forceful, and effective use of IRFA leverage.
But the government of Turkmenistan’s defiance of its legal obligations and self-proclaimed commitment to its own democratic path must not just be modified; it must end. The U.S. government can once again demonstrate its resolve in fighting religious persecution worldwide by calling things by their proper names with regard to Turkmenistan. The government of Turkmenistan falls both squarely and egregiously into IRFA’s focus on governments that have “engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
Apart from securing meaningful, measurable and sustainable improvements in its record on protecting religious rights within a pre-determined timeline, there can be no legitimate justification for a CPC waiver on Turkmenistan this year. Barring such improvements, we strongly endorse the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom’s August 8 appeal and respectfully urge you to accord Turkmenistan long overdue CPC designation this year.
Thank you for your attention to these concerns.
Environmental Justice Foundation
Human Rights Watch
Institute for War and Peace Reporting
International Crisis Group
International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights
International League for Human Rights
Memorial Human Rights Center
Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation
Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights