KESTON INSTITUTE, OXFORD, UK
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KESTON NEWS SERVICE
Issue 3, Article 9, 6 March 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.
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Monday 6 March 2000
TURKMEN AUTHORITIES ARREST BAPTIST, FREE MULLAH

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

In a further sign of the moves to extinguish Protestant congregations in
Turkmenistan, the authorities have arrested a young Baptist whose brother is
serving a four year sentence in labour camp on what the church describes as
trumped-up charges, while a further Baptist arrested last month remains in
prison. At the same time the authorities have freed from prison a 72-year-old
mullah arrested at the beginning of February after he made a personal plea for
pardon to the president, SAPARMURAT NIYAZOV, and transferred him to
internal exile.

According to an announcement issued by the local Baptist church on 5 March
and passed to Keston News Service by the Friedensstimme Mission in
Germany, CHARIYAR ATAKOV was arrested two days earlier in the town of
Kaakhka southwest of the capital Ashgabad. `He has been deprived of his
liberty because he is a Christian,' the local church declares. `The official charge
[against him] is still unknown.' The church calls for appeals and prayers for his
release.

Chariyar Atakov has already faced pressure from the authorities. He and fellow
Baptist ANATOLI BELYAYEV were stopped at a police checkpoint along the
Ashgabad-Dashkhovuz highway on 17 April 1999, when Turkmen Bibles were
discovered in their car. After officials had quizzed the two about their faith,
they confiscated all their books and papers. The men were told that the Baptist
faith was `forbidden' in Turkmenistan and escorted the last 60 miles to
Dashkhovuz, where they were interrogated separately at the National Security
Committee (KNB, former KGB). Atakov was beaten severely for refusing to
give information about the church, repeatedly punched in the stomach and his
head banged against the wall. When a drunk security officer later intensified
the beating, Atakov reportedly told him he was `prepared to be martyred' for
his faith. The beating stopped abruptly and the two were locked in a cold room
for the night. The following morning the two were dropped outside the city of
Dashkhovuz at the side of the road (see KNS 28 May 1999).

Chariyar Atakov's brother SHAGELDY ATAKOV was sentenced last year to
four years in a labour camp on charges of `swindling', a sentence he is serving
in a labour camp in Seydy in the northeast of the country. The authorities have
put unprecedented pressure on the Atakov family, only some of whose
members are Christians. Shageldy's wife ARTYGUL and their five children
were subjected to `internal deportation' from the town of Mary to Kaakhka on 3
February after being ordered expelled from Mary by the local KNB chief. The
family remains under `village arrest' and is reportedly under tight surveillance.
Artygul has been pressured by state officials to abandon the Baptist faith and
convert to Islam. A brother of Chariyar and Shageldy was found hanged in
February in unclarified circumstances. A number of family members - some of
them not even Baptists - have been dismissed from their jobs in an apparent
attempt to put pressure on Shageldy and his immediate family.

The other Baptist prisoner is Anatoli Belyayev, who had been detained with
Chariyar Atakov in April 1999. Belyayev was arrested in Ashgabad on 2
February and there were initial fears he would be deported (see KNS 14
February 2000). According to the latest reports Belyayev is being held in
investigation prison in Ashgabad, though it is unknown whether any specific
charges have been brought against him.

In another recent incident of harassment, the Baptist VITALI TERESHIN from
Dashkhovuz reported in a statement of 14 February that KNB officers had burst
into his home the previous day and declared a religious meeting `unlawful',
recording the names of all those present. They issued a fine under Article 205
of the Administrative Code for `violation of the legislation on religious
organisations', a provision that dates back to the Soviet era but which remains
in wide use against meetings held by religious minorities. Tereshin's passport
was confiscated and he was summoned to the town's KNB station, where he
refused to write a statement.

All these Baptists are members of congregations that belong to the Council of
Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which refused registration during
the Soviet era and has declined to register its congregations in any of the
republics of the former Soviet Union since 1991. Although Keston has not been
able independently to verify the information in the Baptists' statement, similar
statements issued over the past decades through the Council of Churches - the
denomination's central body - have proved to have a very high level of
accuracy.

Meanwhile, a prominent elderly mullah has been freed from prison and
transferred to internal exile, the Turkmen Service of Radio Liberty reported on
3 March. HOJA AHMED ORAZGYLYCH was arrested on 7 February in
Ashgabad by law enforcement officers and accused of `swindling' (see KNS 22
February 2000). The mullah was among a number of convicts transported from
jail straight to a session of the cabinet on 3 March, where he met President
Niyazov. Orazgylych repented and asked forgiveness of Niyazov and the
president pardoned the mullah, replacing his term in prison with internal exile
to his home region of Tedjen, according to Radio Liberty. `Go and work there
and live honestly,' Niyazov told him. `Be a good example for the people, for
children. I was told that the investigation has finished and you could have been
given 15 to 20 years in prison. But we are forgiving you, provided you repent.
If you commit such a crime again you will be imprisoned for this crime as well.
Let this be a good lesson for clerics.' Radio Liberty also reported that according
to unconfirmed reports, while speaking recently in Mary, President Niyazov
had ordered that copies of a translation of the Koran from Arabic into Turkmen
by the mullah be burnt.

A further religious believer believed to be still in prison in Turkmenistan is the
Jehovah's Witness KURBAN ZAKIROV. The Jehovah's Witness lawyer
LUBOMIR MULLER reports that he had heard that he was still in prison in
December 1999 .

Zakirov, born in 1980 and brought up in a children's home, is from the city of
Turkmenabad (formerly Chardjou). He became a Jehovah's Witness in June
1997. On 23 April 1999 he was imprisoned for violating Article 219 of the
Turkmen Criminal Code (`evading regular call-up to active military service').
On being called to the enlistment commission he reportedly petitioned the
president to excuse him from military service on the grounds that his
conscientiously held beliefs did not allow him to serve in the army.

Zakirov attracted the attention of the police in January 1999 when, during a
visit to a private home in Chardjou, he was caught discussing the bible. He is
believed to have been held for 30 days for participating in an illegal religious
meeting. Following his release he was called to the Military Commissariat
where he stated his conscientious objection to compulsory military service. He
was immediately charged under Article 219 of the Criminal Code and placed in
pre-trial detention.

Three other Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned in Turkmenistan in recent years
for refusing military service, ROMAN SIDELNIKOV, OLEG VORONIN and
ROMAN KARIMOV, have been released, Muller confirms. However, he
reports that other young men from the Jehovah's Witness community are also
believed to be in prison for refusing compulsory military service.

The Turkmen authorities have permitted only the officially-approved Sunni
Muslim Board and the local branch of the Russian Orthodox Church to gain
registration since 1997, when all other religious groups that had registration
had it revoked. Although Turkmen legislation does not specifically outlaw
unregistered religious activity, the authorities consider such religious activity
illegal. They have detained believers, raided worship services, deported non-
citizens involved in religious activity, fined believers and demolished places of
worship in their attempts to stamp out all traces of religious activity outside the
framework of the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church.
(END)


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