(Washington) - Members of the United States Helsinki Commission expressed their disappointment with a law against religions recently enacted in the former Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan. The Commissioners renewed their call for Secretary of State Colin Powell to designate Turkmenistan as a "Country of Particular Concern," in the face of growing repression against those who seek to profess and practice their faith.
The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 established the designation of "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC) for countries with a well-documented record of "particularly severe violations of religious freedom." Designations can be made at any time by the Secretary of State.
"I am gravely concerned by the new downturn for this most recent strike against religious freedom in Turkmenistan," declared United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). "This new law demonstrates Niyazov's fear of people freely exercising their religious beliefs and strengthens the case for designating Turkmenistan as a Country of Particular Concern. I urge Secretary of State Colin Powell to consider this alarming development."
"Niyazov's regime continues to amaze me with increasingly draconian laws aimed at further crushing human rights," said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO). "Turkmenistan's brazen violations of the rights of believers warrant designation as a Country of Particular Concern."
"Unregistered groups brave enough to meet have repeatedly faced home raids, imprisonment, deportation, internal exile, house eviction and even torture," said Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD). "The law contains a chapter entitled 'Controlling and Monitoring the Activities of Religious Organizations.' This flies in the face of OSCE commitments on religious freedom and makes a horrible situation even worse."
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.
The new anti-religion law bans any activity by unregistered religious groups. While many religious communities exist in Turkmenistan, only the Russian Orthodox Church and the Sunni branch of Islam are registered, and both are strictly controlled by the Niyazov regime.
To obtain permission to operate legally, a group must demonstrate, among other things, that it has 500 members. Yet the registration requirements are too burdensome for small religious communities to fulfill, placing them in real jeopardy. There is concern that this high threshold will be applied in each locality where a group wishes to operate, making registration virtually impossible to obtain.
Also alarming is the new, corresponding criminal code amendment, which stipulates that individuals caught more than once a year acting on behalf of an unregistered religious community can be fined between ten and thirty months of wages, be sent to hard labor for two years or imprisoned for one year. The previous law only levied administrative fines for similar "offenses."
Reports continually arise of religious communities suffering under Niyazov's iron grip, including the following:
In November, the State Security Ministry (formerly the KGB) closed down a mosque for not placing Niyazov's religious book, the Ruhnama, on the same stand as a Koran during Friday prayers.
In October, police banned Baptists from meeting in Balkanabad and doubled their fines.
In June, authorities temporarily detained and heavily fined leaders of a Baptist church ministering to the deaf for meeting "illegally" in Turkmenabad.
Five members of a non-denominational Protestant church in the town of Abadan were fined after a police raid.
In May, authorities raided and closed a meeting of Hare Krishnas in Ashgabad, and law enforcement officers broke up a Baptist Sunday morning service in Turkmenbashi.
On October 20, eight Members of the United States Helsinki Commission and 26 other Members of Congress wrote a letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, urging him to designate Turkmenistan--along with Saudi Arabia and Vietnam--as a Country of Particular Concern for its appalling record on religious freedom. Countries currently designated as CPCs are Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.
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.