Wednesday 21 April

BAPTIST IMPRISONED ON SWINDLING CHARGES AMID RENEWED CRACKDOWN ON CHRISTIAN MINORITIES IN TURKMENISTAN



by Felix Corley, Keston News Service



SHAGILDY ATAKOV, an ethnic Turkmen member of a Baptist congregation

in the port city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk), has been

sentenced to two years in a general regime labour camp. `Judging by

the process and the procedure of the trial we can see the real

motives behind the criminal case against Shagildy Atakov,' local

Baptists told the US-based Russian Evangelistic Ministries in the

wake of the trial, `persecution against him for his faith, as a

Christian.'



Local Baptist sources report that Atakov, a driver and car trader,

first encountered problems with state officials soon after joining

the Turkmenbashi congregation, which belongs to the branch of the

Evangelical Christian Baptists that rejected state registration

during the Soviet period (the `initsiativniki'). On 10 November 1998

an official of the National Security Committee (the successor to the

KGB) visited him and threatened to charge him `on an old case' if he

did not cease his participation in the church. When Atakov ignored

this threat, he received further warnings from officials - including

a 10 December visit from the local religious affairs official and the

local senior imam - before being arrested late in the evening on 18

December. On arresting Atakov, Agents of the Criminal Investigation

Department assured his anxious wife Gulya that he would be released

in half an hour, but he was instead charged with swindling,

apparently in connection with his car sales.



Atakov went on trial on 19 March in the Koptedag district court in

the capital Ashgabad, where he was found guilty of swindling under

Article 228 of the Turkmen Criminal Code. In addition to his labour

camp sentence he was reportedly fined the equivalent of 12,000 US

dollars, a huge sum in Turkmen terms.



`We are forced to view this not as an accidental arrest, but as a

planned event that resulted after numerous threats against

Evangelical Baptist believers in Turkmenistan,' wrote PASTOR V. V.

CHERNOV of the Ashgabad Baptist church last December in the wake of

the arrest, `If brother Shagildy Atakov had agreed to stop preaching,

and become unfaithful to the call of Christ to preach the good news,

then he would not have been arrested.' The congregation has sent

telegrams of protest to the Turkmen president and attorney general.



In addition, Baptists abroad have begun a letter-writing campaign to

the Turkmen authorities, demanding Atakov's release. Officials of the

Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs have admitted that after the

Turkmenbashi Baptist congregation encountered problems with the state

authorities in 1997, they received a flood of letters from Baptists

around the world, with the implication that this had some effect on

the state's treatment of the congregation. However, although

prisoners sentenced under Article 228 have been included in several

amnesties involving tens of thousands of prisoners in recent months,

Atakov has not been among them.



Russian human rights activist NIKOLAI MITROKHIN told Keston that he

believes that the charges against Atakov were carefully chosen to

disguise the real origin of the case against him: `This is a common

practice of the Turkmen authorities, who try not to use political

charges against prisoners of conscience but send them to prison for

ordinary criminal offences.' Mitrokhin, of the Moscow-based

Information Centre for Human Rights in Central Asia, returned in

March from a research visit to Turkmenistan during which he

investigated the case of Atakov and other religious believers who

have encountered problems from the Turkmen authorities.



Baptists in Turkmenistan have reported another recent case of

problems with the authorities. On 9 March LYDIA ACHILOVA was summoned

by the administrative commission in the city of Dashkhovuz, where she

was fined 200,000 manats (one month's average wages) under Article

205 of the Turkmen Administrative Code for hosting Baptist services

at her home: `Since our sister Achilova does not recognise herself

guilty before God or men, she refuses to pay the fine. Her case has

been passed to the court.'



Local Baptists ask supporters abroad to pray and write letters of

petition for Achilova because, they say, the article under which she

was fined violates Article 11 of the Turkmen Constitution, which

guarantees religious freedom, the non-interference of the state in

religious matters and the freedom `to profess any religion or not

profess any either individually or jointly with others, to profess

and disseminate beliefs associated with his attitude to religion, and

to participate in the practice of religious cults, rituals, and

rites.'



The Information Centre for Human Rights in Central Asia also reports

harassment of the Baptist church in Tashauz, which is likewise

unregistered. Officials of the town administration summoned the

congregation leader, VITALY TERESHNEV, on 9 March. His wife LIDA

TERESHNEVA, the owner of the house where the church meets, was then

fined 200,000 manats under Article 205 of the Administrative Code for

allowing it to be used for unregistered religious meetings. When

Tereshnev refused to pay this money the authorities threatened court

action to force them to pay. The couple had moved to Tashauz from

Russia at the end of last year and Lida, a citizen of Uzbekistan,

bought the house to hold church meetings. The authorities immediately

started threatening them to halt the meetings in the house or to

leave the town.



Among other recent problems, the Information Centre cites the case of

an unregistered Pentecostal community in Ashgabad. On 28 February

about half a dozen officials - who declined to reveal their identity

- burst into a meeting of the Sunday school at the House of Prayer.

They demanded that everyone present give their names and passport

details. The officials - who, it was later established, were from the

Internal Affairs Ministry - were persuaded to allow the class to

carry on until the end. Official documents were drawn up for those

over the age of 16 - a total of 23 participants. Summoned to appear

on 1 March at the local police station with their passports, these

were then confiscated and the 23 were taken by bus to the

administrative commission of the Koptedag district of the city. The

chairman of the commission, NURAGA ALABERDYEV, told them that he did

not care what they believed in, but that they had been holding an

illegal meeting. Accusing them of violating Article 205 of the

Administrative Code, he threatened to fine all of them - pensioners

included - 200,000 manats, withholding their passports until they

paid. Eventually only the owner of the house, PASTOR ANTONIN

MOKROUSOV, was fined 100,000 manats, although he was in Germany when

the incident took place. The community underwent a similar raid in

spring 1998.



Ever since the tightening up of legislation on religion and

subsequent compulsory re-registration in early 1997, only the Russian

Orthodox Church and the officially-sanctioned Muslims have been able

to gain re-registration for their congregations. All other religious

communities that previously had official registration have now been

deprived of it. The law now requires religious groups to have 500

members before they can apply for registration, and even then there

is no guarantee that they will receive it. (END)