KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 11.00, 12 March 2001

TURKMENISTAN: ATAKOV TO SPEND BIRTHDAY IN PRISON
HOSPITAL? Exactly one week before Baptist prisoner of conscience
Shageldy Atakov´┐Żs 39th birthday and exactly one month after the OSCE
asked in vain for permission to visit him in prison hospital, Keston News
Service has learned that there has apparently been no progress towards
his release. The EU has recently lodged a demarche with the Turkmen
Foreign Ministry, demanding his release.

TURKMENISTAN: ATAKOV TO SPEND BIRTHDAY IN PRISON
HOSPITAL?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Exactly one month after the Ashgabad centre of the Organisation for
Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) asked in vain for permission
from the Turkmen authorities to visit ailing Baptist prisoner Shageldy
Atakov and exactly a week before he marks his 39th birthday in prison
hospital in the town of Mary, Keston News Service reports that there has
been no apparent progress towards his release. Foreign Ministry sources
in a number of countries have confirmed to Keston that on 23 February
the European Union (EU) lodged a demarche with the Turkmen foreign
minister, Batyr Berdiev, calling for Atakov to be freed, but these sources
report that there has been no formal response to the demarche.

The Friedensstimme mission in Germany, which maintains close links
with Baptists in the former Soviet republics, told Keston on 9 March that
there has been no recent news of Atakov since his transfer from labour
camp in Seydy to the prison hospital in Mary in early February, though
they presume he is still being held there. Keston has been unable to
obtain the telephone number of Mary prison to ask the commander,
Gazanov, whether Atakov is still in the prison hospital and whether his
health has improved since his transfer.

Atakov, who was born on 19 March 1962 and is married with five
children, is serving a four year sentence on charges of fraud and forging
documents. Local Baptists insist these accusations - relating to his
activities as a car-dealer before he became a Christian - were merely the
excuse to punish Atakov for his activities with the Baptist church in the
port city of Turkmenbashi. His church - whose activities the Turkmen
authorities claim are illegal - is a member of the Council of Churches of
Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which rejects registration in all the
former Soviet republics where it operates.

The Turkmen authorities have so far resisted all pressure to free Atakov,
despite his poor health caused by repeated beatings in labour camp,
forcible treatment with psychotropic drugs and medical neglect. He was
offered amnesty in January on condition he swear the oath of loyalty to
the president and country on a copy of the Koran, but he declined.

Last year the OSCE chairwoman in office, Austrian foreign minister
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, took up Atakov's case with President
Saparmurat Niyazov, to no avail, and this year the United States Helsinki
Commission appealed for his release. Amnesty International has joined
these appeals. The OSCE applied to visit him in prison hospital on 12
February but, an official of the OSCE Ashgabad centre told Keston on 9
March, `there has been no response so far'. Keston understands that in
response to the EU demarche the foreign minister indicated he would
pass on the demarche to President Niyazov and believed Atakov's case
might be considered in the next amnesty. However, no official response
has been given.

On 23 February, deputy foreign minister Yolbors Kepbanov issued a
statement to Amnesty International categorically denying that Atakov
had been tortured in custody but without giving any evidence to back up
his assertion or any specific details on Atakov's current state of health
(see KNS 27 February 2001).

Atakov's address in prison is:
Turkmenistan
Mary,
uchr. MR-KKh/15,
Atakov, Shageldy
(END)