TURKMENISTAN: Campaign Against Religious Meetings in Private Homes?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 12 June 2001

The same official who closed the Baptist church in the Turkmen capital Ashgabad earlier this year (see KNS 2 March 2001) has now arranged the expulsion from their home of a family who used their flat for Jehovah's Witness meetings. Maksat Yazmuradov, head of the special commission of the Niyazov district khyakimlik (administration), was unavailable on 12 June when Keston News Service sought to ask him why he was conducting a campaign to prevent residents using their homes for religious events, which Turkmenistan's constitution specifically allows. Nor would an official of the khyakimlik's administrative department comment. `We're not responsible for the decision and secondly we don't answer such questions by telephone,' she told Keston, before putting down the phone.

The khyakimlik brought the case to expel the Segzekov family from their home, claiming that they had violated the housing code by not using the flat they rented for its true purpose. According to the verdict (of which Keston has received a copy), the Niyazov district court ruled on 4 June that the family should be deprived of the flat `without provision of another place of residence'. `Having illusory hopes of a just consideration of the case, the Segzekov family intends to appeal against the ruling to the Ashgabad city court,' Jehovah's Witness representatives told Keston on 11 June. They have until 14 June to lodge their appeal.

Maria Segzekov, her husband Amangaly (who is not a Jehovah's Witness) and their two children, are still in their flat, as the ruling only takes effect once the legal case has concluded.

At the hearing, presided over by judge V. Hadjimamedov, the khyakimlik's lawyer, R. Yazdurdiyev, claimed that neighbours had complained of disturbance from people attending the meetings, although the Segzekov family obtained a letter from 12 neighbours denying this. Yazdurdiyev declared that religious meetings were `unsanctioned' and violated the terms of use of the flat. He claimed Maria Segzekov had received three written warnings to halt the meetings, although she and her husband had received only one and had halted religious meetings in their home after receiving it. The district procurator G. Shchukurova was apparently not convinced the khyakimlik had issued more than one warning, as there was no documentation attesting to the warnings it alleged had been issued on 30 March and 18 April.

The family reportedly used the flat for religious meetings on two evenings a week, inviting their friends to attend. Officers of the KNB, Turkmenistan's secret police, raided the flat on 27 April, together with police officers and representatives of the khyakimlik `under the guise of conducting a passport check', Jehovah's Witness sources reported. `After all the participants had arrived, an explanatory discussion was held with them about the unacceptability of holding such religious meetings in a flat in view of the absence of registration.' The names of those present were taken and on 30 April, Yazmuradov summoned all of them to the khyakimlik's administrative commission. `Those summoned had to suffer a humiliating attitude, were fined 250,000 manats [about one month's average wages] and sent to the police.' Maria Segzekov reportedly refused to pay.

Article 11 of the Turkmen constitution guarantees freedom of religion and equality of different faiths before the law. `Everyone has the right to determine independently their attitude to religion individually or jointly with others to confess any religion or not to confess any,' Article 11 adds, `to express and spread their convictions connected with their attitude to religion and to take part in the carrying out of religious cults, rituals and rites.'

`Despite the constitutional guarantees of freedom, the Jehovah's Witnesses in Turkmenistan have long been subjected to various kinds of torment,' Jehovah's Witnesses complained. `The persecutions are, as a rule, initiated by the KNB and are not confined to threats, beatings and fines.'

Keston has also learnt of further actions against members of religious minority communities the government regards as illegal (i.e. every community apart from the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church). Protestant sources told Keston that a number of Protestants in Ashgabad, Turkmenabad (formerly Chardjou) and elsewhere were sacked from their jobs in March and April for their involvement in religious activity. In one case, a teacher was sacked after the KNB came to the school where the church member worked and issued an instruction to the director. The sources declined to allow the denomination involved to be publicly identified for fear of further retribution against church members. (END)