TURKMENISTAN: Jehovah's Witness Family Lodges Last-Ditch Appeal Against Eviction.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 1 August 2001

A Jehovah's Witness family in the Turkmen capital Ashgabad, threatened with eviction from their rented home after using it for religious meetings, has lodged a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court. The Segzekov family lodged the appeal in mid-July after losing an appeal against an earlier court ruling ordering their expulsion. The Ashgabad city court rejected that appeal on 4 July, upholding the ruling of the Niyazov district court that they should be deprived of their home `without provision of another place of residence' (see KNS 12 June 2001). No date has yet been set for the Supreme Court hearing. Maria Segzekov, her husband Amangaly (who is not a Jehovah's Witness) and their two children will not be evicted until the legal process is over. The Jehovah's Witnesses - like all non-Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox faiths - have been refused registration under Turkmenistan's highly restrictive religion law and cannot thus acquire places of worship.

Ambassador Istvan Venczel, the head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) office in Ashgabad, told Keston News Service on 1 August that his office is `following this case very closely - even more, we have tried to intervene'. `We don't give up hope that we can help them in some way.' He added that they had already raised the case with various officials, pointing out that the Segzekov family had halted their religious meetings after a warning in April in the wake of a raid and that the case to evict them had begun after that. He said he had also sent details of the case to the OSCE headquarters in Vienna, and this had elicited `very sharp comments' from the delegations of the OSCE member countries.

On 1 August Keston telephoned Yagshimurad Atamuradov, chairman of the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs, but when asked why the family was due to be evicted for holding religious meetings in their own home he put the phone down. When Keston called back he had switched the fax machine on.

In its verdict (of which Keston has a copy), the Ashgabad city court ruled that it saw no reason `to annul or change the district court decision'. It agreed that Article 108 of the Housing Code did not allow rented properties to be used `not for their purpose' or for practices that `systematically violate the rules of communal living that make it impossible for others to live together in one building'. The city court verdict declared that Maria Segzekov `did not deny the fact that religious meetings took place in her flat', and that she had received administrative fines for this (which she had refused to pay).

In his appeal, which was rejected by the city court, Amangaly Segzekov had argued that `in itself, the use of the living quarters for friendly meetings for the periodic discussion of Biblical questions does not change the functional designation of the living quarters'. He stressed that the flat remained the family home, and was therefore being used for its correct purpose, claiming that of 168 hours in any week, the flat was used for religious meetings only for eight hours, less than five per cent of the time.

Segzekov pointed out that the khyakimlik (local administration), from whom he rents the flat, had never complained about the alleged misuse of the flat and that his wife's fines had been for violation of the laws on religion. He said the district court's decision, issued on 4 June, had violated the guarantees in Article 22 of the Constitution and Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the right to housing.

He also argued that any punishment for holding religious meetings at home violates the Constitution and the religion law. `My provision of my rented living quarters for friendly meetings to my acquaintances for the discussion of Biblical questions represents the realisation of my right to freedom of conscience,' Segzekov insisted. The district court had not, he added, pointed to `any concrete actions on my part that caused a threat to the security of the state to the life of the residents of my building. No complaints from other residents of the building ever reached me.' Segzekov also claimed the eviction would violate the rights of their two children who, without a place to live, would be deprived of full access to education and healthcare.

The city court - under presiding judge M. Ishadov - accepted the arguments of N. Nammetdurdiyeva, an aide to the city procurator, rejecting all Segzekov's arguments.

The original campaign to evict the family was initiated by Maksat Yazmuradov, head of the special commission of the Niyazov district khyakimlik, the same official who closed the city's Baptist church earlier this year (see KNS 2 March 2001). Yazmuradov was unavailable by telephone on 1 August. The decision to evict the Segzekov family from its home is part of a wider campaign to evict believers of a variety of faiths who use their homes for religious meetings. A number of Protestant families have already been deprived of their homes so far this year.

Ambassador Venczel told Keston that everyone in Turkmenistan should have the right to conduct small-scale religious meetings with family and friends in their own home. `This is their right under international human rights standards and the laws of Turkmenistan. Expressing religious faith is a simple freedom of the human being.' (END)