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Helsinki Commission Chairman Welcomes State Department Critique of Repression of Religious Groups in Turkmenistan

Washington – United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today welcomed the State Department’s overdue criticism of Turkmenistan’s human rights abuses and renewed his plea to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to designate the former Soviet Republic as a Country of Particular Concern.

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

“After considering the condemnatory information put forth by this State Department report, it only reinforces my belief that Turkmenistan must be designated a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998,” declared Smith. “If the State Department refuses to designate this repressive, evil regime as a CPC, I question the very utility of the designation.”

“The Turkmen Government and Niyazov have proven unwilling to change their behavior toward religious freedom,” Smith added. “I therefore urge Secretary Powell to designate Turkmenistan as a Country of Particular Concern, clearly stating that the United States will not tolerate these brutal and oppressive practices.”

Stating that “the Government continues to restrict all forms of religious expression,” the Annual Report highlighted how “the Government severely limits the activities of unregistered religious congregations by prohibiting them from gathering publicly, proselytizing, and disseminating religious materials.” The report added that “the Government’s interpretation of the [registration] law severely restricts their freedom to meet and worship in private.”

The regime further curtailed religious freedom in November by promulgating a new religion law, an event that occurred outside the reporting period. The new law added criminal penalties for “illegal” unregistered religious activity, with the potential for imprisonment and hard labor in prison camps.

On October 20, eight Members of the United States Helsinki Commission and 26 other Members of Congress wrote a letter to Secretary Powell, urging him to designate Turkmenistan–along with Saudi Arabia and Vietnam–as a Country of Particular Concern.

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