TURKMENISTAN/UZBEKISTAN: Plea For Visa-Free Cross-Border Muslim Graveyard Visits.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 18 January 2002

An Uzbek human rights organisation has appealed to Turkmenistan's president Saparmurat Niyazov to allow Muslims in the region along Uzbekistan's western border with Turkmenistan to be able to visit graves of relatives in Turkmenistan on two Muslim festivals a year without paying what it believes is an unaffordable visa fee. "

According to Islam, believers are obliged to visit the graves of their relatives on the festivals of Kurban-Bairam [Eid-al-Adha] and Ramadan Haita [Eid-al-fitr]," Talib Yakubov, head of the unregistered Society for Human Rights of Uzbekistan, told Keston News Service by telephone on 16 January. Yakubov, speaking a month after a riot caused when hundreds of Uzbeks forced their way through the border in an attempt to reach a cemetery three kilometres (two miles) inside Turkmenistan, is keen to prevent a repetition of the riot next month. "People simply do not have six dollars to pay the Turkmen border guards for a visa, and that means that at Kurban-Bairam [marked this year on 22 February] they will again force their way across the border."

He said residents of Amudarya district in Uzbekistan's autonomous Karakalpakstan republic have already told his organisation conflicts at the border crossing are likely.

According to the Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre, on 17 December, the last day of the Ramadan fasting month, a group of 400-500 people from Uzbekistan's Amudarya district gathered near the customs building on the Turkmen border intending to cross to visit the cemetery in Gubadag district of Turkmenistan to hold a religious ceremony commemorating the dead. Turkmen law requires Uzbek citizens wishing to cross the Turkmen border to pay a fee of six US dollars (which must be paid in dollars). Many Uzbek citizens find it hard to raise the fee, which represents more than most earn in a month. The Turkmen soldiers refused to let the Uzbeks cross to the cemetery, ignoring all requests to let them through without payment.

Then, approximately 200 people broke through the circle of soldiers and marched directly towards the cemetery. In front of and behind the crowd were Turkmen soldiers armed with automatic rifles. After three kilometres, near the military barracks, soldiers stopped the crowd, surrounded it and pointedly cocked their automatic rifles. A fire engine and buses approached. A person in civilian dress who appeared to be in command of the soldiers announced: "You have violated the Turkmen state border and we have the right to open fire on you. We shall not let you pass, you should turn back." Although they were only half a kilometre from the cemetery, the people were ordered to go back as rumours spread that the order from above had been received to open fire on the crowd should the order be ignored.

Keston's attempts to verify this account with the Uzbek authorities proved unsuccessful. "I am hearing about this case for the first time from you. I can only say one thing: there has not been any official reaction to this case," the director of the information agency attached to the Uzbek foreign ministry, Abror Gulyamov, told Keston by telephone from Tashkent on 16 January. A senior official of the Committee for Religious Affairs at Uzbekistan's Cabinet of Ministers, who asked not to be named, told Keston by telephone the same day that he had heard about the incident on the BBC. "Ever since Turkmenistan introduced a visa regime, residents in the border regions have found themselves in a very difficult situation." The official added that during the Soviet period, the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan was "purely a formality", with Uzbeks and Turkmen living on both sides of the border. "But today, close relatives have been separated by the border. People cannot, without excessive formalities, pay their respects at the graves of their relatives." The official stressed that he did not want his name published. "The border question is a very delicate one, and I do not want to get caught up in it.

"Turkmen officials proved more forthcoming. "We know all about the incident of 17 December. A crowd of Uzbek residents forced their way across the border, after beating up three of our border guards," Kurban Halmuradov, duty officer at the local branch of the National Security Committee (KNB, former KGB), told Keston by telephone on 16 January. "Our border guards put a stop to this violent action, and turned these illegal entrants back into Uzbekistan.

"The borders between the Central Asian republics were established in 1924. Prior to that, however, states in the region were never built on the basis of ethnicity. Even in 1921, when asked about their nationality, the indigenous population of Central Asia replied "Muslim". The unacceptability for local people of the very principle of ethnic and territorial demarcation has been made even more acute by the fact that borders were frequently designated arbitrarily, without taking account of ethnic and political realities. The legacy of this is the dozen "disputed territories" in Central Asia to which two ethnic groups lay claim simultaneously. (END)