TURKMENISTAN: Six Jehovah's Witnesses in Labour Camp.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 22 March 2002

Six Jehovah's Witnesses are currently serving sentences totalling 22 years for their religious activities in Turkmenistan, Jehovah's Witness sources at the Russian headquarters in St Petersburg have told Keston News Service. Two are conscientious objectors (Turkmenistan has no alternative to compulsory military service), but four more are serving sentences on what the Jehovah's Witnesses maintain are trumped-up charges. The Jehovah's Witnesses - like all non-Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox faiths - are denied registration in Turkmenistan and are subject to fines, beatings, deportation and detention. Repeated applications for registration have all been turned down.

Oguljan Jumanazarova from the town of Seydi close to Turkmenistan's northern border with Uzbekistan was sentenced to four years' imprisonment last July. She celebrated her 40th birthday in February in a women's labour camp in the city of Dashkhovuz. The Jehovah's Witnesses say her sentence, on accusations of fraud, was based on fabricated evidence. Jumanazarova, who became a Jehovah's Witness in 1999, used to work for a public attorney's association and helped other Jehovah's Witnesses in her home town with their legal problems. As a result, the authorities tried to confine her to a psychiatric hospital, which she managed to avoid by temporarily fleeing from the town. Jumanazarova's sister is currently looking after her daughter while she serves her sentence.

Meanwhile, 35-year-old Ikhtiyar Khalikov, also from Seydi, is serving a three and a half year sentence in a minimum-security labour camp in the town on charges of possessing firearms. Jehovah's Witness sources report that a hand-rifle was planted in his car during a police search. Khalikov became a Jehovah's Witness in 1995.

In what is the longest sentence imposed on any religious prisoner in Turkmenistan since independence in 1991 and the longest sentence imposed on a Jehovah's Witness in any of the former Soviet republics where Jehovah's Witnesses are still subject to imprisonment for practising their faith, Kurban Zakirov is still serving an eight-year term of imprisonment in a labour camp tacked onto an earlier one-year sentence that he had just completed (see KNS 20 February 2001). Jehovah's Witness sources told Keston that Zakirov, previously held in a high-security camp in Turkmenabad (formerly Charjou) has recently been transferred to a closed prison where prisoners are not let out even for exercise.

Still serving his sentence in a medium-security labour camp in the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi is Yazmammed Annamammedov (see KNS 20 February 2001), who is from Serdar (formerly Gyzylarbat) and is married with three young children. Arrested in November 1999, he was sentenced on 13 December 1999 to four years in a minimum-security labour camp after being found guilty of having pistol cartridges, gunpowder and explosive material in his home. He and his wife say these items were planted during a search by police and the prosecutor.

The two conscientious objectors still in prison are Yuri Yeremeyev - arrested on 8 December 2000 and sentenced on 19 January 2001 to one and a half years' imprisonment and now serving his sentence in a minimum security labour camp in Seydi (see KNS 20 February 2001) - and Ilya Osipov. Osipov - who has not yet been baptised as a Jehovah's Witness - was sentenced on 30 July last year to one year's imprisonment. On 6 September the higher court left the original sentence unchanged. Osipov's further appeal was dismissed on 27 September. He was granted a pardon under President Saparmurat Niyazov's prisoner amnesty, but because he refused to swear an oath of loyalty on a copy of the Koran and a picture of the president he was sent back to labour camp.

Jehovah's Witness sources report that six Jehovah's Witnesses who had been serving prison terms for refusing military service of between one and two years have recently been released after serving at least a part of their sentence, three of them last December (Akhmet Muradov, Igor Nazarov and Nikolai Shelekhov). They would have been released earlier under amnesty had they taken an oath of loyalty on the Koran.

Jehovah's Witnesses have reported a growing number of cases of harassment by police and other authorities. Many Jehovah's Witnesses have been detained after speaking of their faith with others. Private gatherings have been interrupted and all present taken to the police station. High fines have been administered. Some Witnesses have been dismissed from their workplaces after the authorities learned about their religious affiliation. Many have been held in police custody for several days.

Keston has seen copies of notifications of fines issued to two Jehovah's Witnesses in December by the administrative commission of the Niyazov district of Ashgabad, although Keston has been asked not to reveal the names of those fined for fear of making their position worse. Each was fined separately 250,000 manats (some 12 dollars or 17 pounds at the street exchange rate) under Article 205 of the Administrative Code, a provision dating back to the Soviet period punishing those engaged in unregistered religious activity. The reason for the fine is stated to be "Jehovah's Witness meeting" in each case.

"The fine must be paid by the violator not later than five days from the date of receiving the present instruction," the notification declared, "to account number 066571402 at the State Bank of Turkmenistan, recipient of the fine the hakimlik [administration] of the President Niyazov district of Ashgabad."

It remains unclear what impact President Niyazov's recent sweeping purge of leaders of the National Security Committee (KNB, former KGB) will have on the repression of religious minorities, in which the KNB has played a key role (see KNS 8 December 2000). In the purge, launched on 4 March, KNB chairman Muhammed Nazarov was initially demoted and publicly humiliated, then dismissed on 14 March. Two deputy heads and a series of local chiefs were also dismissed. The new KNB chief is the former interior ministry Poran Berdyev. (END)