TURKMENISTAN: Atakov to Spend 39th Birthday in Prison?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 12 March 2001

Exactly one month after the Ashgabad centre of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) asked in vain for permission from the Turkmen authorities to visit ailing Baptist prisoner Shageldy Atakov and exactly a week before he marks his 39th birthday in prison hospital in the town of Mary, Keston News Service reports that there has been no apparent progress towards his release. Foreign Ministry sources in a number of countries have confirmed to Keston that on 23 February the European Union (EU) lodged a demarche with the Turkmen foreign minister, Batyr Berdiev, calling for Atakov to be freed, but these sources report that there has been no formal response to the demarche.

The Friedensstimme mission in Germany, which maintains close links with Baptists in the former Soviet republics, told Keston on 9 March that there has been no recent news of Atakov since his transfer from labour camp in Seydy to the prison hospital in Mary in early February, though they presume he is still being held there. Keston has been unable to obtain the telephone number of Mary prison to ask the commander, Gazanov, whether Atakov is still in the prison hospital and whether his health has improved since his transfer.

Atakov, who was born on 19 March 1962 and is married with five children, is serving a four year sentence on charges of fraud and forging documents. Local Baptists insist these accusations - relating to his activities as a car-dealer before he became a Christian - were merely the excuse to punish Atakov for his activities with the Baptist church in the port city of Turkmenbashi. His church - whose activities the Turkmen authorities claim are illegal - is a member of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which rejects registration in all the former Soviet republics where it operates.

The Turkmen authorities have so far resisted all pressure to free Atakov, despite his poor health caused by repeated beatings in labour camp, forcible treatment with psychotropic drugs and medical neglect. He was offered amnesty in January on condition he swear the oath of loyalty to the president and country on a copy of the Koran, but he declined.

Last year the OSCE chairwoman in office, Austrian foreign minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, took up Atakov's case with President Saparmurat Niyazov, to no avail, and this year the United States Helsinki Commission appealed for his release. Amnesty International has joined these appeals. The OSCE applied to visit him in prison hospital on 12 February but, an official of the OSCE Ashgabad centre told Keston on 9 March, `there has been no response so far'. Keston understands that in response to the EU demarche the foreign minister indicated he would pass on the demarche to President Niyazov and believed Atakov's case might be considered in the next amnesty. However, no official response has been given.

On 23 February, deputy foreign minister Yolbors Kepbanov issued a statement to Amnesty International categorically denying that Atakov had been tortured in custody but without giving any evidence to back up his assertion or any specific details on Atakov's current state of health (see KNS 27 February 2001).

Atakov's address in prison is:

Turkmenistan

Mary,

uchr. MR-KKh/15,

Atakov, Shageldy

(END)