KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 11.00, 10 January 2002.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.

PRESSURE CONTINUES. Baptist prisoner Shageldy Atakov has been
freed before the end of his four-year sentence, Keston News Service has
learnt. He was released from prison in the Caspian port city of
Turkmenbashi early on 8 January and has been reunited with his wife
Artygul and five children. "Jesus has given me a Christmas gift," Atakov
was quoted as saying. The terms of release have not been made clear,
however, and Atakov has received neither a release certificate nor his
identity papers. The Turkmen authorities continue to put pressure on
Baptist congregations, whose activity the government regards as illegal.
The church in Balkanabad was raided on 23 December and a leading
member of the Ashgabad congregation died in mysterious circumstances
on 22 December.


by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Turkmenistan's most prominent religious prisoner, the Baptist Shageldy
Atakov, has been freed before the end of his four-year sentence, Keston
News Service has learnt. The US-based Russian Evangelistic Ministries
and the German-based Friedensstimme Mission, which maintain close
ties with Baptists in the former Soviet republics, have both confirmed that
Atakov was released from prison in the Caspian port city of
Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) early on 8 January and has now
been reunited with his wife Artygul and five children in the town of
Kaakhka close to Turkmenistan's southern border with Iran. "Jesus has
given me a Christmas gift," Atakov was quoted as saying (many
Christians in the region celebrate Christmas on 7 January).

However, many Baptists remain sceptical about the terms of the release.
"There is unease because of the abnormal nature of the release," a
spokesman for Russian Evangelistic Ministries told Keston, pointing out
that Atakov was given no release certificate and has not yet recovered his
identity papers. Prison officials told Atakov these would be delivered to
him at his home within ten days. The Council of Churches of Evangelical
Christians/Baptists, the umbrella organisation within the former Soviet
republics representing Atakov's congregation, has not so far issued a
statement about the release, apparently because of the unclarified terms of
the release.

Some local Baptists believe Atakov was freed now to forestall any major
gatherings by fellow Baptists on his due release date next May, when his
sentence expires.

The 39-year-old Atakov, a convert to Christianity, was sentenced on
charges of swindling and forging documents which church members
insist were instigated to obstruct his activity with the church. He was
arrested on 18 December 1998 in Turkmenbashi, was sentenced to two
years' imprisonment and fined on 19 March 1999, but was retried on 4
and 5 August 1999 in the Turkmen capital Ashgabad and given the
increased sentence.

Atakov's imprisonment has led to unprecedented pressure on the Turkmen
authorities. The labour camps and prisons where he was held received
vast numbers of letters from supporters around the world, very few of
which were handed to him, and the Organisation for Security and
Cooperation in Europe and foreign governments put pressure on the
authorities to free him. Last May, in a deal brokered by United States
diplomats, Atakov was brought to Ashgabad, where he met the head of
the political police, the KNB (former KGB), and was pressured to
emigrate with his family in return for his freedom. Atakov declined the
offer and was returned to prison (see KNS 14 May 2001).

During his imprisonment, Atakov was forcibly treated with psychotropic
drugs and his health was reported a year ago to be very poor. However,
those who have spoken to him since his release say he is "doing well
spiritually and physically".

Despite Atakov's release, the Turkmen authorities have continued their
pressure on Baptist congregations, all of whose activity the government
regards as illegal. Local Baptists report that all those who attended the
religious service in a private home in the town of Khazar (formerly
Cheleken) raided on 16 December (see KNS 21 December 2001) were
summoned to appear before an administrative commission at the local
administration on 9 January. It is not yet known whether they were fined,
or whether the threat to confiscate the home of the host, Mariya
Zadorozhnaya, has yet been carried out.

The Baptist church in the town of Balkanabad (formerly Nebit-Dag) was
raided at the end of the Sunday service on 23 December. Passport details
for all those present were recorded and five young men were taken for
interrogation at the KNB. An officer of the KNB's religious department,
Kadyr Yazgendiyev, hit three of the Baptists, Dovran Akmuradov, Vitali
Konovalov and Maksim Grishin, on the head. All five Baptists were
ordered to write statements about their participation in the church and
were told they would be summoned again. Officials said that because
their church is not registered they are not allowed to meet.

Local Baptists are also concerned by the mysterious circumstances
surrounding the death on 22 December of Mikhail Kozlov, a leading
figure in the Ashgabad Baptist congregation. Kozlov was driving alone
from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabad on 21 December when he came off the
road. He was taken unconscious to hospital where he failed to regain
consciousness and died the following day. Baptists report that Kozlov, a
keen sportsman, had several times escaped apparent KNB attempts to kill
him. His funeral in Ashgabad on 28 December attracted many Baptists
from across Turkmenistan and Russia and was not disturbed by the KNB.

Turkmenistan has the harshest religious policy of all the former Soviet
republics. Only state-approved mosques and congregations of the Russian
Orthodox Church have official registration. The government treats all
other religious communities as illegal, including all Protestant Christians,
the Armenian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the
Hare Krishna community and the Baha'is. Believers of unregistered faiths
have been beaten, fined, imprisoned and deported, which places of
worship have been confiscated and, in several cases, demolished. Private
homes used for unsanctioned religious meetings have been confiscated.

Copyright (c) 2002 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.