The U.S. government should single out Turkmenistan for denying religious freedom to its citizens, a coalition of leading human rights groups said today in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The group of 10 human rights and advocacy organizations, including Human Rights Watch, urged the State Department to designate Turkmenistan as a “country of particular concern” under U.S. law for severe violations of religious freedom.
“There is no freedom of religion in Turkmenistan,” the letter said, describing the extent of repression in the strategically important and gas-rich Central Asian country, which is a former Soviet republic.
The groups said that the Turkmen government, which is one of the most closed and brutal in the world, persecutes minority religious communities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists with police raids on prayer meetings, arbitrary arrests and beatings.
The government, led by President-for-Life Saparmurat Niazov since independence in 1991, sentenced the country’s former Islamic religious leader, Nasrulla ibn Ibadulla, to 22 years of imprisonment on unknown charges. This makes him the longest-standing religious prisoner of conscience in countries of the former Soviet Union, according to the independent watchdog Forum 18.
The U.S. decision on designating Turkmenistan is likely to take into account U.S. security needs and stability in Central Asia as much as the country’s draconian moves to suppress religion. In July, Turkmenistan’s authoritarian neighbor, Uzbekistan, ordered the United States to close down its military base, which was central to U.S. military and humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan. Since then, the United States has had to reassess its readiness to depend on strategic but autocratic states. A visit to Turkmenistan last month by Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, pointed to U.S. military interests in the country.
The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the executive to designate countries that are serious violators of religious freedom as “countries of particular concern.” When a country is named to this list, the Secretary of State must choose from an optional menu of steps, from diplomatic pressure to the imposition of sanctions. Calling the designation “long overdue,” the coalition said that the Secretary of State’s failure to designate Turkmenistan would “jeopardize the credibility of IRFA’s unique, proven leverage with respect to Turkmenistan and other countries.”
“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,” the letter said.