TURKMENISTAN: Atakov Freed.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 10 January 2002

Turkmenistan's most prominent religious prisoner, the Baptist Shageldy Atakov, has been freed before the end of his four-year sentence, Keston News Service has learnt. The US-based Russian Evangelistic Ministries and the German-based Friedensstimme Mission, which maintain close ties with Baptists in the former Soviet republics, have both confirmed that Atakov was released from prison in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) early on 8 January and has now been reunited with his wife Artygul and five children in the town of Kaakhka close to Turkmenistan's southern border with Iran. "Jesus has given me a Christmas gift," Atakov was quoted as saying (many Christians in the region celebrate Christmas on 7 January).

However, many Baptists remain sceptical about the terms of the release. "There is unease because of the abnormal nature of the release," a spokesman for Russian Evangelistic Ministries told Keston, pointing out that Atakov was given no release certificate and has not yet recovered his identity papers. Prison officials told Atakov these would be delivered to him at his home within ten days. The Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, the umbrella organisation within the former Soviet republics representing Atakov's congregation, has not so far issued a statement about the release, apparently because of the unclarified terms of the release.

Some local Baptists believe Atakov was freed now to forestall any major gatherings by fellow Baptists on his due release date next May, when his sentence expires.

The 39-year-old Atakov, a convert to Christianity, was sentenced on charges of swindling and forging documents which church members insist were instigated to obstruct his activity with the church. He was arrested on 18 December 1998 in Turkmenbashi, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment and fined on 19 March 1999, but was retried on 4 and 5 August 1999 in the Turkmen capital Ashgabad and given the increased sentence.

Atakov's imprisonment has led to unprecedented pressure on the Turkmen authorities. The labour camps and prisons where he was held received vast numbers of letters from supporters around the world, very few of which were handed to him, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and foreign governments put pressure on the authorities to free him. Last May, in a deal brokered by United States diplomats, Atakov was brought to Ashgabad, where he met the head of the political police, the KNB (former KGB), and was pressured to emigrate with his family in return for his freedom. Atakov declined the offer and was returned to prison (see KNS 14 May 2001).

During his imprisonment, Atakov was forcibly treated with psychotropic drugs and his health was reported a year ago to be very poor. However, those who have spoken to him since his release say he is "doing well spiritually and physically".

Despite Atakov's release, the Turkmen authorities have continued their pressure on Baptist congregations, all of whose activity the government regards as illegal. Local Baptists report that all those who attended the religious service in a private home in the town of Khazar (formerly Cheleken) raided on 16 December (see KNS 21 December 2001) were summoned to appear before an administrative commission at the local administration on 9 January. It is not yet known whether they were fined, or whether the threat to confiscate the home of the host, Mariya Zadorozhnaya, has yet been carried out.

The Baptist church in the town of Balkanabad (formerly Nebit-Dag) was raided at the end of the Sunday service on 23 December. Passport details for all those present were recorded and five young men were taken for interrogation at the KNB. An officer of the KNB's religious department, Kadyr Yazgendiyev, hit three of the Baptists, Dovran Akmuradov, Vitali Konovalov and Maksim Grishin, on the head. All five Baptists were ordered to write statements about their participation in the church and were told they would be summoned again. Officials said that because their church is not registered they are not allowed to meet.

Local Baptists are also concerned by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death on 22 December of Mikhail Kozlov, a leading figure in the Ashgabad Baptist congregation. Kozlov was driving alone from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabad on 21 December when he came off the road. He was taken unconscious to hospital where he failed to regain consciousness and died the following day. Baptists report that Kozlov, a keen sportsman, had several times escaped apparent KNB attempts to kill him. His funeral in Ashgabad on 28 December attracted many Baptists from across Turkmenistan and Russia and was not disturbed by the KNB.

Turkmenistan has the harshest religious policy of all the former Soviet republics. Only state-approved mosques and congregations of the Russian Orthodox Church have official registration. The government treats all other religious communities as illegal, including all Protestant Christians, the Armenian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Hare Krishna community and the Baha'is. Believers of unregistered faiths have been beaten, fined, imprisoned and deported, which places of worship have been confiscated and, in several cases, demolished. Private homes used for unsanctioned religious meetings have been confiscated. (END)