(Washington) - United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today decried the cruel and unjust treatment of a Baptist minister in Turkmenistan, who reportedly is being tortured in prison.
“It sickens me to learn of the persecution of Baptist minister Shagildy Atakov, who, we believe, is being held prisoner and tortured because of his faith,” Smith said. “According to the most recent information we have, Atakov told his wife he does not expect to survive his mistreatment.”
“I urge the international diplomatic community to join me in calling for his immediate release,” Smith continued. “And I pray that Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurat Niyazov will release Reverend Atakov immediately and unconditionally.”
The Reverend Shagildy Atakov was arrested on December 18, 1998 at his home in Turkmenbashi and charged with “fraud.” On March 19, 1999, Atakov was fined $12,000 and sentenced to two years in prison. The average monthly wage in Turkmenistan is about $30.
Despite his conviction for an allegedly criminal offense, government officials have reportedly pressured Atakov and his family members to renounce their religious faith. Reverend Atakov has been subjected to brutal beatings and torture by prison officials.
After Atakov’s second trial, set for July 21, 1999, was postponed because he had been too weakened by severe beatings, prosecutors increased his prison sentence by an additional two years and raised his fine by another $12,000.
In November 1999, Atakov was sent to a punishment cell for 15 days at Seydy labor camp. In March 2000, he was sent to a punishment cell for one month. Atakov suffered symptoms of a heart attack last December, after which he was again sent to a punishment cell and severely beaten. The minister was reportedly so severely beaten during one round of torture that he was temporarily blinded.
Today, Atakov’s life is in severe danger. The latest reports indicate that he told his wife on her recent visit that he does not expect to survive his abuse.
Amnesty International issued an urgent alert on Monday, urging Atakov’s release.
In numerous letters to President Niyazov, Smith has urged Atakov’s release. Turkmenistan’s Government routinely responds that the minister committed “defrauding actions toward the citizens of Turkmenistan and The Russian Federation by illegally possessing their properties and money,” and that his “conviction...has nothing to [do] with his religious beliefs.”
However, Turkmenistan is the most repressive country in the former USSR. Under President Niyazov’s iron-handed rule, Turkmenistan, as an OSCE participating State since 1992, remains a one-party police state which observes no human rights commitments. In the last few years, the government has noticeably stepped up harassment of religious communities and persecution of believers. In November1999, authorities demolished a Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the capital city, Ashgabat, after having destroyed a Hare Krishna temple.
In January, two political prisoners were amnestied, after recanting on television and praising President Niyazov.