(Washington) - United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today met with His Excellency Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan’s Ambassador to the United States, to discuss the Turkmen Government’s miserable record on human rights abuses with regard to religious freedom. Commissioners Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) and Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL) also participated in the meeting.
“Turkmenistan has the worst record on religious freedom in the entire 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe,” Co-Chairman Smith said. “The systematic abuses that occur almost weekly are an abomination to the internationally recognized values represented in OSCE documents.”
Recent actions by Turkmen security agents against religious groups, including harassment, torture and detention epitomize the total failure of Turkmenistan to uphold its human rights commitments as a participating State in the OSCE. Turkmenistan joined the OSCE in 1992.
On two consecutive days last month, security forces reportedly raided a Seventh-Day Adventist group meeting in a Turkmenabad apartment, as well as the Protestant Word of Life church meeting in an Ashgabad flat. Individuals were detained, identity documents seized, and large fines were levied against participants in both cases. In Ashgabad, the capital of Turkmenistan, individuals were apparently threatened that if they participate in another meeting, they would be forcibly relocated to a different region of the country. Two members of the Word of Life church were held in prison for 15 days. One of the members was reportedly beaten.
In Turkmenistan no religious groups are registered other than Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church. Burdensome registration requirements effectively prevent any other faith groups from meeting. The government does not allow unregistered groups to meet publicly or privately, disseminate religious material or exercise free speech.
“As a consequence of stringent registration requirements, individuals desiring to meet collectively, a right provided in OSCE documents and other international conventions on the subject, are caught in a ‘catch-22’ situation,” said Commissioner Pitts.
“These recent raids run completely counter to all the human rights agreements to which Turkmenistan has committed itself through its OSCE membership,” said Commissioner Aderholt. “We are very disappointed with what has happened.”
President Saparmurat Niyazov, the one-time Communist boss of the former Soviet Turkmen Republic, has declared himself president for life and has named himself “Turkmenbashi,” the leader of all Turkmen.
Turkmenistan shares a long border with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, and Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for several former Soviet Republics is currently under discussion.
“With President Niyazov trampling on religious freedom, the Bush Administration should use its new-found influence in the region, as well as the question of PNTR, to push for reforms,” Smith added. “I told the Ambassador that the only barrier to PNTR for Turkmenistan is human rights.”
The Commissioners raised the plight of Baptist pastor Shagildy Atakov, imprisoned since 1999, with Ambassador Orazov. 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 and leave the country. Atakov has been subjected to brutal beatings and torture by prison officials, according to credible sources.
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.
The Commissioners also raised the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses jailed for refusing to serve in the military or take an oath of allegiance to President Niyazov.
In March 2000, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing entitled “The State of Democracy and Human Rights in Turkmenistan.” This and other information can be found at the Commission’s website, http://www.csce.gov.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.