TURKMENISTAN: Situation Eases for Punished Protestants.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 29 November 2001

In the wake of the payment of the massive fines on those attending a Protestant service in a private flat in the capital Ashgabad raided by the authorities on 15 November (see KNS 22 November 2001), sources in Turkmenistan have told Keston News Service that pressure on members of the Word of Life church who attended the meeting has eased. However, Pastor Vladimir Shamrai, one of three foreign nationals expelled from Turkmenistan in the wake of the raid, has told Keston that he thinks the authorities set such large fines because they believed foreign Christians would pay them.

"All fines are paid," one local Christian told Keston from Ashgabad on 29 November. "Most of the money has been donated as a gift by other brothers and sisters from here and abroad." Other sources confirmed that identity documents taken from the forty or so people fined have now been returned.

Sources say that the five people interrogated last week have so far been let off with a warning. Svetlana Annamukhammedova and her husband Ishan Annamukhammedov were questioned on 21 November and later in the week as to how and why they invited Pastor Leonid Malko from Moscow (who was present when the church was raided and was deported two days later). Lyudmila Karpenko was questioned the same day as to why she invited Pastor Shamrai and his wife Olga (who were also present at the meeting and who were deported three days later). Immediately afterwards, Olga Ryzhkova, the owner of the private flat where the meeting was held, was also interrogated. Although she was warned, sources say that the danger she would lose her flat has receded. Interrogated on 23 November was Olga Nuryeva, but it appears the authorities are not proceeding with their threat to sack her from her job as a music teacher in an Ashgabad school.

Pastor Shamrai told Keston from Moscow on 29 November that he had asked the KNB (former KGB) officer who accompanied him and his wife to the airport as they were being deported, who gave his first name as Oraz but declined to give his full name, why the fines had been so high. "You have lots of money," the KNB officer responded. "You can afford it." He said the Turkmen authorities believe Christians in the country have good contacts abroad. "The authorities think Westerners are financing local churches," Shamrai told Keston. "They set the fines so high deliberately." He added that Orthodox priest Father Andrei Sapunov - who is also a deputy head of the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs - provides the authorities with information about groups he regards as "sects". "He tells the authorities people are paid to attend our meetings. He is close to the president [Saparmurat Niyazov] and they act on his information, although in himself he is not a powerful figure." Shamrai admitted that such reports were just rumours, but believed they were reliable.

"Repression comes in waves," Shamrai declared, "especially around festivals like Independence Day. Officials are trying to create an image for the president." Turkmenistan marked Independence Day on 27 October, and the celebrations lasted ten days. (END)