TURKMENISTAN: Drinking Tea To Lead To Internal Deportation?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 14 February 2002

In the wake of a police raid last Sunday (10 February) on a group of six Protestants who had gathered in a private home in the capital Ashgabad to drink tea and "have fellowship", the host has been threatened with the confiscation of her home and deportation to a village nearby. Protestant sources have told Keston News Service that the four adults present were given fines totalling 150 US dollars (105 British pounds) and then released. However, when the home-owner Tatyana (last name unknown) was summoned again yesterday (13 February), she was warned that using her home for religious meetings and "attracting young people into a sect" was wrong and that she would be deported. No official of the hakimlik (local administration) of the Niyazov district of Ashgabad was prepared to explain to Keston why this private gathering would lead to the confiscation of her home, but two officials separately sought to justify action against unregistered religious communities.

While the four adults and two teenagers were drinking tea together on 10 February, they heard a knock on the door and saw that three police cars had arrived outside the house, sources told Keston. The police broke in and told those present that theirs was a religious gathering which was not permitted. Police twisted the arm of at least one man present to force them into the waiting vehicles to take them to the police station. After questioning, the two teenagers, the home-owner and one other Protestant were allowed to go home, with the two adults being warned to appear before the hakimlik's administrative commission the following morning. Two others, Stas and Yevgeny (last names unknown), who are both from the eastern town of Turkmenabad (formerly Charjou), were held overnight at the special police holding centre before being taken directly to the administrative commission.

Two of the four were each given fines of 1,500,000 manats (285 US dollars or 200 British pounds at the inflated official exchange rate, 45 dollars or 30 pounds at the street rate), while the other two were fined 1,000,000 manats each, apparently under Article 205 of the administrative code, a Soviet-era provision that punishes those involved in unregistered religious activity. All four have now paid the fines, Keston has learned, and have received back their passports. The two visitors from Turkmenabad were warned to leave Ashgabad and not to reappear there for the next month if they wished to avoid a fifteen-day prison term.

It is not clear if and when the authorities intend to follow up on their threat to confiscate Tatyana's home and internally deport her. Tatyana is reportedly highly concerned about the potential loss of her house, especially as it is also home for her son, who is aged eleven or twelve. The mission in Ashgabad of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation has been informed about the case.

An official of the administrative department of the Niyazov district hakimlik, who declined to give his name, told Keston by telephone on 14 February that he was not familiar with the case, but said that "if they were punished, they must have been guilty". Asked how a group of individuals meeting privately in a private home constituted a violation of the law, he declared: "It is the law - religious organisations must be registered in order to function." As evidence, he cited the country's constitution. When Keston pointed out that neither the constitution nor the religion law specifically made registration compulsory, he responded: "You have read the law badly. There is an article specifying that you must have 500 people." He then added: "A small number of believers meeting not obviously - that's alright. But if you want to have premises and attract others, acting without registration is an offence." When Keston pointed out that in this instance only six people had gathered, the official gave no response.

The official nevertheless insisted that requiring religious groups to register was justified, otherwise there would be "anarchy". "When you drive a car it is fair that you have to register it first. No-one complains about that. Everything is democratic here. We're doing everything to bring order." He maintained that "religious sects" that register do enjoy religious freedom.

Reached at his officer the same day, Maksat Yazmuradov, head of the hakimlik special administrative group who was involved in confiscating Ashgabad's Baptist Church last year (see KNS 2 March 2001), told Keston that he too was unaware of the case. "I don't sit on the administrative commission," he declared. "The commission consists of ten people, who are from the police, the procuracy and the hakimlik." Asked whether officers of the political police, the KNB (former KGB) are also members, Yazmuradov said no.

Asked why he had sealed the Baptist church last year, preventing the believers from gathering there for worship, he declared simply: "It's our work."

Turkmenistan has the most repressive religious policy of all the former Soviet republics. Only communities of the government-sanctioned Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church have been able to gain registration under the country's restrictive religion law. All other religious groups including the Armenian Apostolic Church, Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists, Lutherans, Jews, Baha'is, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees - are treated as illegal, although no published law specifically bans religious activity without registration. Believers of a variety of faiths have been fined, beaten, internally deported, expelled from the country, imprisoned or had their homes confiscated. Places of worship of a variety of faiths have also been destroyed or confiscated. (END)