TURKMENISTAN: Protestants Fined Thousands of Dollars.

Felix Corley and Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 16 November 2001

More than forty people who were detained when police, KNB security police and local administration officials raided a service of the Word of Life Church in the Turkmen capital Ashgabad on 15 November have been released, but only after paying fines totalling more than forty million manats (7,700 US dollars or 5,400 UK pounds at the official exchange rate; 2,000 USD or 1,420 GBP at the street rate). Sources in Ashgabad told Keston News Service on 16 November that although the fines varied from individual to individual, most paid some one million manats (190 USD or 135 GBP at the official exchange rate; 50 USD or 35 GBP at the street rate), the average monthly wage in Turkmenistan. A police inspector admitted to Keston that the group had been arrested and then released, but declined to discuss why the meeting in a private home had been raided. No other official was prepared to explain why the church service was raided.

All 41 people detained at the evening meeting at the home of Olga Ryzhkova were released during the night, but told to reappear this morning (16 November) at 9 a.m. at the hakimlik (administration) of the Niyazov district of Ashgabad, where Ryzhkova's home is located. "After being interrogated, each was fined a sum of between 250,000 manats and 1,000,000 manats," one source in Ashgabad told Keston. "The authorities have taken all their passports, and threatened that they will not give them back until the fine is paid. Some ladies just fled from the local administration building - because the harassment during interrogation was bad. The authorities tried to chase after them, but the ladies got home safely." None of the hakimlik officials was prepared to identify themselves to those being fined.

The fines on the Protestants - some of whom have already been fined for their religious activity - were imposed under Articles 205 and 178 of the administrative code. Article 205, which dates back to the Soviet era, punishes "violation of the law on religious associations", while Article 178 punishes repeat offenders.

One report from Ashgabad says the authorities threatened to confiscate Ryzhkova's flat in punishment for hosting the meeting. There are also fears that a woman in her fifties who is an in-patient at Ashgabad cancer hospital, Tamara Nikolayevna (last name unknown), might lose her place in hospital in retaliation for attending the service, her first visit to a meeting of the church. Others who attended fear losing their jobs or being expelled from Ashgabad.

Contacted on 16 November, Dushen Saparpaev, inspector of the police of Niyazov district of Ashgabad, refused to give Keston any other details apart from confirming the Protestants' arrest and subsequent release. Asked whether the detentions had been in accordance with the law he referred all enquiries to his boss, who was not present. A duty officer at the Niyazov district police station had already told Keston that they do not give out information by telephone.

On 16 November Keston also contacted the hakim's office at the Niyazov district hakimlik, whose officials had participated in the raid as well. An official who refused to give his name also declined to give any information by telephone. "If they were detained there must have been a reason," he declared, before putting the phone down.

A group of church members visited the government-sponsored National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights in Ashgabad in the wake of the fines to seek ways to pursue their complaints about their treatment.

No Protestant churches in Turkmenistan have been allowed to register under the country's restrictive religion law and registration regulations. The Word of Life church is one of a number of Protestant congregations functioning in Ashgabad without registration, despite the fact that the government considers unregistered religious activity to be illegal. (END)