KESTON NEWS SERVICE
Issue 3, Article 2, 29 February 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

Tuesday 29 February 2000
TURKMEN POLITICAL POLICE RAID CHRISTIAN CHURCH - BUT
DENY IT

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Turkmenistan's political police, the National Security Committee (KNB),
raided a religious meeting held by a Protestant Christian group in a private
home in the town of Bezmein twenty kilometres west of the capital Ashgabad,
according to accounts from several sources reaching Keston News Service.
During the raid - which took place in the evening of 23 February - KNB
officers were accompanied by police officers and representatives of the local
authorities from both Bezmein and Ashgabad itself. All those present were
taken to a building near the house, were interrogated, had their personal details
recorded and were warned that if they continued to meet in future they would
face penalties under a law dating back to the Soviet period that
punishes unregistered religious activity. A leader of the community had his car
confiscated and one member of the community was threatened with
deportation.

However, contacted by telephone on 29 February at the KNB headquarters in
Ashgabad, an official - who declined to give his name - denied that any such
events had taken place. `Who gave you such information? You've been given
false information,' he told Keston, laughing. `No-one here knows anything
about it, none of my colleagues sitting here.' Asked whether he would have
heard whether the raid had taken place he declared: `If I wasn't sure about it I
wouldn't have told you that nothing like that took place. I don't believe there is
a church in Bezmein.' (Keston has learnt that there is a registered Russian
Orthodox church in Bezmein, with its own building.) Asked to give his name,
the KNB official laughed again and responded: `There is no need for you to be
given my name.'

No-one answered the telephone on 29 February at any of the numbers of the
government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs in Ashgabad.

A member of the Bezmein church who witnessed the raid on the home of
NURMURAD BERDYYEV reported what happened. `Without asking our
permission from landlord, they came in and started a discussion with the people
who were in the apartment about the religion we profess and the religious
literature we have,' GUZELYA SYRAYEVA reported. `After that they
searched the home, without a search warrant from the prosecutor, taking away
all personal literature and personal pictures. They also recorded all these
actions on two video cameras. Then, not letting any of us leave (even two
women with 18 month old babies), they asked everyone to go into the building
of the Club, which belongs to the Asbestos Materials Construction Factory.
Already present in the club were the factory director, the trade union leader, the
head of the district administrative office, the director of the club and the
representative of the Islamic religion (mullah), who had been invited earlier.'

The assembled officials then began to threaten the Christians. `They held a
discussion with us, during which we were told that we were violating the law
of our state (Article 205 of the Code of Administrative Law, issued in 1986)
and they said that we do not have the right to exist before we are registered.
They declared that this is a warning; and if we will not obey their order then we
will have to answer according to the law, because what we are doing is
punishable under the criminal law.' (Article 205, which punishes `violation of
the legislation on religious associations', originally attracted a fine of up to fifty
roubles when adopted in the Soviet era. Turkmen believers found guilty under
the article in recent years have been fined up to one month's average wage.)

After each church member had his or her details recorded, Syrayeva recounted,
officials interrogated them separately. `While interviewing, they pressured us
to write and sign an "explanation", in which they required us to write that we
will not meet any more until we are registered. When we told them that the
Turkmen Constitution declares the freedom to believe, worship and practice
religion alone and with others, and even to spread our religion, they answered
us by referring again to Article 205 of the Administrative Code.' However,
officials considered Syrayeva's statement inadequate. `When I tried to say that I
will write that I will visit meetings anyway, I was told that they will reject such
an explanation and they are ready to wait until I write the way they want, even
until morning.'

Syrayeva, who was born and brought up in Kyrgyzstan but who has been living
in Turkmenistan since 1993, was also threatened with deportation. `They also
said that if I write that I will visit meetings, then they will deport me from the
country within 24 hours.' (Six months ago she had survived an attempt to sack
her from her work as a teacher because of her attendance at unregistered church
meetings.)

It was in the wake of the raid that the KNB seized the car belonging to a leader
of the church, SHOKHRAT PIRIYEV, who lives in Ashgabad. `They let us go
at two o'clock in the morning,' Syrayeva continued. `They asked Shokhrat
Piriyev to give them a ride to the police station. Shokhrat came back on foot,
because they confiscated his car, his passport and driving licence. When
Shokhrat and his wife asked them to give them a ride back home, because it
was night and there was little transport available on the streets and Shokhrat
did not have any money, they answered that they did not have a car. But each
of them left in his own car.'

Syrayeva recounted her feelings after the raid. `Each of us felt morally injured,
the children were scared and cried.'

A leader of an associated Christian fellowship in Ashgabad, RADIK
ZAKIROV, wrote to the president of Turkmenistan SAPARMURAT
NIYAZOV on 27 February to pass on Syrayeva's account of the raid. `Here I
send you a letter from our church member, who is a young lady and a school
teacher,' Zakirov told the president. `She has over the past year experienced for
herself KNB activities directed against religious groups, when they took her to
the police station in the evening and held her there until the next day. They did
not help her to live the right way, as you may read in her letter. They taught her
that there is no way to look for justice here in Turkmenistan because, as they
say, everybody will interpret our Constitution the way he wants.'

Zakirov added: `I want you to know how KNB agents, officials from local
government and the police maintain the law and conduct your government's
domestic policies. In order to ensure that my letter will be handed over to you, I
am sending this letter to the UN human rights departments, the OSCE and
presidents and ambassadors of all countries that maintain relations with
Turkmenistan. It is also because I want you to say the truth to all the world of
what you actually think religious freedom is.'

Zakirov also called for the rights of religious minorities to be respected.
`According to your speech at the UN conference, when you declared
Turkmenistan a neutral country, I and all other religious minorities have your
guarantee to publicly practice my faith and spread it as I or we wish. I think
what you said there is very right, Mr. President. You see, I also believe that
there is no organisation in the world that may make me think about God the
way that organisation wants. I do respect your choice, because you have got to
decide yourself what you want to believe. I ask you to guarantee my freedom in
such a choice too, Mr. President, as well as the choice of the rest of the
inhabitants of our Fatherland.'

Piriyev has already been publicly identified by the authorities as a criminal in a
newspaper attack last year. The Ashgabad paper Adalat of 24 September 1999
listed him among a number of religious minority leaders `involved in such
criminal activities as illegal delivery and distribution of [imported religious
books and videos] and conducting regular meetings in private flats'.

Sources in Turkmenistan report that Piriyev's car has still not been returned to
him. (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.