TURKMENISTAN: Three Deported After Protestant Church Raid.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 19 November 2001

As 38 local people desperately search for money to pay off the huge fines levied on them after a service of the Protestant Word of Life Church in the Turkmen capital Ashgabad was raided on 15 November (correction to KNS 16 November 2001, which reported that the fines had already been paid), three foreign citizens who had been present at the meeting have been summarily deported. Russian pastor Vladmir Shamrai, who led the meeting, his wife Olga (a Kazakh citizen), and visiting Russian pastor Leonid Malko had their legal residence in the country terminated and were expelled over the weekend, they told Keston News Service from Moscow on 19 November. The three have described how the local people - especially ethnic Turkmens - have been threatened by the police and officials of the National Security Committee, the KNB (former KGB) for attending a Christian meeting.

"Everyone was distraught about the huge fines imposed," Malko told Keston. "More than 35 of those detained received fines of one million or one and a half million manats [some 50 and 75 US dollars at the street exchange rate] - these are enormous sums in a country where the average wage is about 30 dollars a month. Where can people get money like that? When we asked why we were being fined the KNB officers simply responded: 'It's the law.'"

Although the majority of those detained at the evening meeting were released during the night, Malko reported that five were held until the morning as they did not have their identity documents with them. "One of those held all night was a lady with cancer [Tamara Nikolayevna (last name unknown)]. Another woman held there was beaten in the face."

Malko reported that the five-member administrative commission that met on 16 November at the hakimlik (administration) of the Niyazov district did not impose a fine on Tamara Nikolayevna, who received only a warning, while a pensioner was fined 250,000 manats. Two others received fines of 500,000 manats, but all the rest received the heavier fines.

"Few of the local people have been able to find the money to pay the fines yet, so their passports - which were confiscated by the KNB - have not yet been returned," Malko declared. "The KNB told them: 'When you've paid the fines, bring the receipt to confirm payment and then your passports will be returned.'" Shamrai added that the handful of people who have paid off the fines had to borrow the money to do so. "Some thirty of those fined were from other towns and had come to Ashgabad specially for the meeting. Without their passports they can't travel home."

He added that all the local people attending face the threat of dismissal from work. "The KNB will write to their places of work - or more likely will go to visit their places of work." He believes the threat to confiscate the home of Olga Ryzhkova, who hosted the meeting in her private flat, is real. "The administrative commission told her that if she does that again it will be confiscated, but they could confiscate it for what she has already done. This has happened elsewhere with people who have hosted religious meetings in their homes," Shamrai declared.

The three foreigners seized at the meeting were interrogated separately. "They asked us how we had come to Turkmenistan," Malko reported. "I showed them my card confirming I am a pastor and told them we invited anyone who wanted to come to attend our meetings, believers or non-believers." A record of the interrogation was drawn up and they took away their passports. After paying their fines, they were told they could collect them from the visa and registration office, but there they were told the passports had been sent to the main KNB office. "There we were told we were being deported. Vladimir - who was in the country on a six-month visa - had two months left, but this was cancelled. I was taken to the airport for the Moscow flight on Saturday, as I already had a plane ticket. A KNB officer accompanied me through check-in and passport control, and only at the gate was I given back my passport. I was told I could not enter Turkmenistan for a year and even after then they would only consider an application, not necessarily grant it, as my name is now on the computer at the airport and in all the embassies."

Shamrai and his wife, who is pregnant, wanted to leave on a flight to the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 22 November, but they were forced to fly to Moscow on 18 November. "A KNB officer named Oraz took us to the airport, but all the tickets except business class were taken. Although these were very expensive, we had to take them," Shamrai reported. "They told us that otherwise we would be locked up for four days until the flight. They told us we had no rights there and that we were violating the laws of the country, so we had to be deported." All the Shamrais' personal possessions were subjected to a minute examination by KNB and customs officers. The couple was shouted at and treated "crudely".

Shamrai believes the pressure on his church - which, like all Protestant churches in Turkmenistan, does not have state registration and is treated by the authorities as illegal - will only increase. "There will be more and more threats." (END)