Friday 28 January 2000

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Imprisoned Turkmen Baptist SHAGILDY ATAKOV was sentenced to a
fifteen-day spell in the punishment cell for refusing to swear the daily oath of
loyalty to the president of Turkmenistan SAPARMURAT NIYAZOV which all
prisoners are obliged to swear. Atakov, who is serving his sentence in a labour
camp in Seydy near Turkmenistan's north eastern border with Uzbekistan,
refuses to swear the oath on religious grounds. According to a report reaching
the Friedensstimme Mission in Germany, Atakov was freed from the labour
camp prison cell (known as a `kartser' in Russian) on 5 December 1999 at the
end of the fifteen days.

`The camp authorities are not favourably disposed towards him,' KLAUS
KARSTEN of Friedensstimme told Keston by telephone on 26 January. `They
initially tried to turn the other prisoners against him, but they have now
understood that this will not work. This is why they are now taking direct
action against him.'

Amnesty International reported on 17 January that Atakov was not freed under
a recent amnesty, nor did he have his sentence reduced. `On 7 January 2000
President Niyazov amnestied 7,000 prisoners, some of whom were released and
some of whom had their prison terms reduced. Shagildy Atakov did not fall
under this amnesty.'

Atakov - who is the only known Christian prisoner of conscience in
Turkmenistan - was sentenced in August 1999 to four years' imprisonment by a
court in the capital Ashgabad and was fined an astronomical sum of $12,000.
Average wages in Turkmenistan are no more than $30 a month. The trial was
called after prosecutors complained that the punishment handed down at
Atakov's first trial in March 1999 was too lenient. At the March trial he had
been sentenced to two years in labour camp and a $12,000 fine under Article
228 of the Criminal Code, which covers swindling. The heavy fine reportedly
related to the compensation the prosecutor believed Atakov owed in view of
the car he was alleged to have taken.

The charges - which members of his church say were fraudulent - related to his
activities as a car trader before he became a Christian and joined the Baptist
congregation in the port city of Turkmenbashi. The congregation belongs to the
Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which rejected state
control during the Soviet period. Like all non-Orthodox churches in present-
day Turkmenistan, it does not have state registration. Local Baptists suggest
that the charges against Atakov, an ethnic convert to Christianity, were
designed to halt his preaching activity in the Turkmenbashi congregation.

Atakov - who will be 38 on 19 March 2000 and is married with five children -
was arrested in his home in Turkmenbashi in December 1998. He was singled
out for harsh punishment while in prison awaiting his second trial, where he
was reportedly beaten severely by an officer named Aliyev. At one point he
was said to have lost his sight as a result of the maltreatment. When members
of his family visited him in prison Atakov could not let them embrace him as
his body hurt too much. However, in July 1999, when a group of Baptists
visited the prison near the town of Mary where he was then being held, the
prison director denied that he had been beaten and told the visitors, who were
not allowed to speak to Atakov, that he spent his whole time in prayer.

Atakov's retrial was postponed several times (See KNS 22 July 1999). During a
brief meeting with his family after the retrial, Atakov explained why the trial
did not take place as scheduled in July 1999. Recovering from systematic
beatings, he was in very poor health when the guards picked him off the floor
and dragged him to the vehicle which was supposed to take him to court. When
one of the officers saw how terrible Atakov appeared, he ordered the guards to
take him back to his cell, fearing the incriminating evidence. The trial was then
postponed until August.

Since being sent to the labour camp in Seydy in the wake of his August trial,
Atakov has reportedly had only one meeting with his wife Artygul.

Atakov's labour camp address:
746222 Lebapskaya obl.,
uchr. LV-K/12,
Atakov Shagildy


All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright:
(c) Keston Institute 2000