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Helsinki Commission Briefing Reviews Religious Freedom in Turkmenistan

Washington – The United States Helsinki Commission will hold a briefing with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to examine obstacles to religious freedom in Turkmenistan.

 

Religious Freedom in Turkmenistan

4:00 PM – 5:30 PM

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

485 Russell Senate Building

 

Panelists:

Najia Badykova, Research Associate, George Washington University Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies and former head of the Department of Economic Relations with the Turkmen Government

Lawrence Uzzell, President, International Religious Freedom Watch, an independent research center reporting on threats to freedom of conscience in totalitarian and authoritarian countries

Felix Corley, Editor, Forum 18 News Service, a news service reporting on threats and actions against religious freedom in the former Soviet Bloc

The State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, released on December 18, 2003, sharpened its criticism of the repressive practices of Saparmurat Niyazov’s regime in Turkmenistan. The report concluded that the “status of government respect for religious freedom deteriorated during the period covered by this report.”

The situation for religious freedom in Turkmenistan is bleak.  Late in 2003, Niyazov instituted new laws harshly restricting freedom of religion; groups brave enough to meet risk home raids, house eviction, imprisonment and possibly torture, internal exile, or deportation. Individuals caught more than once in a year acting on behalf of an unregistered religious community can be fined between ten and thirty months of wages, or be sent to hard labor for up to one year.  

In March, Niyazov issued new edicts on religious freedom, theoretically increasing the ability of individuals to actually enjoy these rights. Yet these promises were bracketed by further repression.  Roughly one week before the announcement, a court convicted the former Islamic leader of Turkmenistan of treason and sentenced him to 22 years in jail.  The imam reportedly ran afoul of authorities when he refused to place in his mosque Niyazov’s self-written spiritual book next to the Koran and the same day Niyazov announced the “legislative improvements,” authorities reportedly arrested a Jehovah’s Witness in the capital and pressured him to renounce his faith.  A few weeks later, Niyazov declared on public television that Muslim communities could not build any more mosques. 

Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the State Department may designate a state a “Country of Particular Concern” for its “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” which is defined as being “systematic, ongoing, and egregious.”  The briefing will provide a timely opportunity to assess developments in Turkmenistan as the State Department prepares to make designation determinations in the near future.

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