TURKMENISTAN: Hearing in Pentecostal Church Confiscation Case set for 1 March

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 28 February 2001

The new hearing ordered by the city court in the Turkmen capital Ashgabad on 31 January in the case brought by the authorities of Ashgabad's Kopetdag district to confiscate the city's Pentecostal church (see KNS 31 January 2001) will now begin at noon tomorrow (Thursday 1 March) in Kopetdag district court with judge Redjep Ilyasov presiding. `In the wake of the appeal hearing the whole case will begin all over again in the district court,' the church's pastor Viktor Makrousov told Keston News Service by telephone on 27 February.

The Kopetdag district court ruled on 4 January that the church building - which is owned as a private house by Pastor Makrousov – was to be confiscated without compensation, but this decision was overturned on appeal, to the surprise of Pastor Makrousov and the foreign diplomats who attended the 31 January hearing. The city court judge ruled that the case should be sent back to the lower court as its earlier ruling had been flawed.

The case has attracted a high international profile, as evidenced by the presence of diplomats at both the court hearings. The chairman of the Helsinki Commission of the United States Congress, Christopher Smith, wrote to Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov on 2 January expressing his concern about the threatened confiscation.

One Adventist church, two Hare Krishna temples and two mosques are already known to have been destroyed in Turkmenistan on government orders to halt the religious activity taking place in them. The acting khyakim (head of administration) of Kopetdag district, Aleksei Razmakhov, originally called for the Pentecostal church to be demolished, but the 4 January ruling made no mention of demolition.

Acting khyakim Razmakhov was out on 28 February when Keston tried to contact him, as was deputy khyakim Veronika Annaklycheva. Khakimlik. Officials told Keston that only they could discuss the case to confiscate the Pentecostal church.

Meanwhile, in a separate case, Pastor Makrousov has been challenging in court two fines levied on him late last year for religious activity the government claimed was illegal (see KNS 30 January 2001). After several postponements, the case was eventually heard on 21 and 26 February. `The verdict in written form will not be released until 1 March,' Pastor Makrousov told Keston.

At the first hearing on 21 February, a representative of the Niyazov district khyakimlik and the district prosecutor argued that his activity had been illegal and that the fines imposed on him under Article 205 of the Administrative Code (which punishes minor offences)had therefore been legal. Both insisted Pastor Makrousov should find the 500 adult members required under the 1996 religion law and apply for registration, halting all religious activity until registration had been obtained. `It is obvious Pastor Makrousov cannot find 500 people,' they reportedly declared. (Average attendance at Sunday services at the Ashgabad Pentecostal church is fewer than 30 people, with a total of about 100 in the congregation as a whole.) However, Pastor Makrousov told the hearing that the provisions of the religion law do not apply to meetings held in private homes and that the law on public gatherings excludes religious gatherings in private homes from its scope.

Pastor Makrousov has already paid the two fines each of 250,000 manats (one month's average wages). Also fined the same sum on the second occasion were his wife, his daughter and another member of the church. (END)