TURKMENISTAN: Secret Police Raid Baptist Service and Ban Pastor From Leading Worship.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 10 May 2001

Baptist pastor Vasily Korobov from the Turkmen capital Ashgabad was told by an officer of the country's secret police, the KNB (former KGB), on 7 May that he should not try to leave the city for at least six months, Keston News Service has learnt. He was also banned from holding further Baptist meetings. The KNB officer suggested to Korobov and two fellow Baptists that they should go to the Russian Orthodox church (the only legal Christian denomination in Turkmenistan) and `there would be no problem'. The `suggestion' came after Pastor Korobov and his colleagues were detained the previous day for leading a Sunday service in the open air near the town of Mary, 350 kilometres (220 miles) east of Ashgabad. Since all Baptist and other Protestant activity was banned, Turkmenistan's Baptist churches have all been closed down, including Korobov's own in Ashgabad (see KNS 19 March 2001). Some groups have revived the Soviet-era practice of holding services in the open air in a bid to avoid detection.

It is not yet known if the ban on Korobov leaving Ashgabad was issued officially or `unofficially'. As he has not been subject to a sentence imposed by a court, any restrictions on Korobov's movements violate Turkmenistan's international commitments to freedom of movement. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Turkmenistan has signed, declares: `Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence.' The ban on any further Baptist meetings violates Turkmenistan's international commitments to freedom of religion and of association.

On the morning of Sunday 6 May, fearing that it would be too risky to hold a service in Mary itself, the Baptists went 10 kilometres (6 miles) out of town and began their service in the open air. Shortly after the service started three KNB officers arrived. Asked what was going on, the Baptists declared they were meeting to pray and read the Bible. The KNB halted the service, and one officer asked who was from Ashgabad. Korobov and his two colleagues from Ashgabad identified themselves. The KNB were apparently mostly interested in the three, though they wrote down personal details of all those present, including name, address, telephone number, place of employment and passport number.

The three from Ashgabad were told they would be taken to the local police station for questioning and `processing'. One KNB officer went in Korobov's car and the other two went with Korobov's two colleagues. The three were questioned for about an hour and a half at the police station before being escorted to Mary's KNB headquarters. There Korobov was questioned by a senior KNB officer, while the other two were questioned by a more junior officer. The KNB officer told Korobov they had been waiting for them for three days.

The three were questioned from noon until 7:30 in the evening. They were then escorted to the edge of Mary and handed over to a waiting police escort from Tedjen, a town about half way between Mary and Ashgabad. They were not allowed to retrieve their belongings from the home where they were staying, although the KNB did allow a friend to fetch them while they waited. They then left under escort for Ashgabad.

At both police checkpoints before Tedjen the escorting officer advised the checkpoint that the three Baptists and the car they were in were never to be allowed through in future. This same instruction was given at the Tedjen checkpoint. The escort left them there and they were allowed to continue to Ashgabad on their own.

The Ashgabad KNB phoned Korobov's wife Lyudmila at home several times asking whether he had arrived. Finally they asked her to tell him to call the Ashgabad KNB as soon as he returned. The three Baptists arrived in Ashgabad at 11 o'clock the following morning. Korobov phoned the KNB and was instructed to come in at 2:00 pm. Korobov arrived as instructed at the KNB office, where officers told him he knew he should not conduct meetings. He was warned that if meetings did not stop he would be in `really big trouble'. When Korobov asked how the KNB knew they were going to Mary, the KNB officer eventually replied that the information came from one of Korobov's `enemies'.

Keston did not telephone Pastor Korobov to confirm the report for fear of making his position even worse. (END)