Issue 6, Article 13, 9 June 2000

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

Friday 9 June 2000

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Just days after the chairwoman-in-office of the Organisation for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) appealed in vain to the Turkmen president for
his release, imprisoned Baptist SHAGELDY ATAKOV faces the prospect of a
further spell in the labour camp punishment cell, according to a report reaching
Keston News Service. Atakov is serving a sentence in a labour camp in Seydy
near Turkmenistan's north eastern border with Uzbekistan for his involvement
in an unregistered Baptist congregation in the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi.
He was sentenced in August 1999 to four years' imprisonment for `swindling'
by a court in the capital Ashgabad and was fined an astronomical sum of
$12,000. 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 church.

The Turkmenbashi congregation that Atakov joined belongs to the Council of
Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which rejected state control
during the Soviet period. Although Keston has not been able to verify the
report of Atakov's threatened new punishment independently, information from
sources within the Council of Churches has a long track record of reliability.

The Friedensstimme Mission in Germany told Keston on 7 June, citing
information it had received the previous day from Baptist sources in
Turkmenistan, that the administration of the labour camp in Seydy is reviewing
the cases of prisoners. Some of the prisoners may be freed, Friedensstimme
was told, while others will face increased penalties. The camp authorities want
to punish Atakov for the `crime' of being the ring-leader among the imprisoned
criminals, known as a `thief-in-law' (`vorzakonnik' in Russian). Local Baptists -
who regard such accusations as ridiculous - fear that he may once again be
placed in the camp punishment cell (known in Russian as a `kartser'). `Many
times they have tried to break Shageldy,' Baptists told Friedensstimme. `One of
the prison officers was even threatened that if he fails to break Atakov things
will go badly for him. For his own sake he asked Shageldy to agree to swear
the oath [of loyalty to the president].' Atakov was sent to the punishment cell
last December for refusing to swear the daily oath of loyalty to the president
required of all prisoners, and was also sent to the punishment cell again earlier
this year (see KNS 15 March 2000).

Atakov's wife ARTYGUL ATAKOVA was able to visit her husband in labour
camp on 30 May. `She was a witness to answered prayers: Brother Atakov is
bold and firm in faith, despite all manner of attacks from the enemy and the
authorities,' Baptists in Turkmenistan told Friedensstimme, adding that Atakov
is respected among the other prisoners.

Artygul Atakova's visit to her husband came a day after the OSCE
chairwoman, Austrian Foreign Minister BENITA FERRERO-WALDNER,
raised Atakov's case at a meeting with President SAPARMURAT NIYAZOV.
Ferrero-Waldner - who was visiting Ashgabad on a tour of the Central Asian
republics - also raised the cases of three imprisoned political critics of the
government, appealing for all four to be freed. The OSCE believes the four
have been imprisoned unjustly. OSCE officials told Keston from Ashgabad on
1 June that the cases were raised at the end of the meeting, but `unfortunately
Niyazov's reply was negative on all four cases'. The president gave a long
explanation of why the men should stay in prison, describing them as criminals
sentenced by the courts. At the end he said one of them - NURBEDY
NURMAMEDOV - might be freed in an amnesty at the end of the year.
Speaking after the meeting, Ferrero-Waldner said she was deeply disappointed
at Niyazov's unwillingness to act, stressing that respect for human rights was
one of the commitments Turkmenistan made when it joined the OSCE.

OSCE officials told Keston that Niyazov's `not very encouraging' response
about the four cases did not mean that the government might not eventually
respond. `I cannot say anything positive about the response,' an official - who
preferred not to be named - told Keston, `though that does not mean there will
not necessarily be anything positive in the future.'

Despite the difficult situation for congregations of the Council of Churches the
Friedensstimme Mission told Keston that Baptist services are continuing in
Turkmenistan; the last foreigner who had been working in the Church was
expelled in mid-May (see KNS 23 May 2000) and the government treats all
unregistered religious activity as illegal. (END)

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