WASHINGTON – United States Helsinki Commission members today expressed gratitude for the release of imprisoned Baptist Shagildy Atakov, but remained cautious about Turkmenistan’s progress toward meeting its human rights commitments to the Helsinki Final Act.
Baptist pastor Shagildy Atakov was reportedly freed on January 8, 2002, after three years in prison under fabricated charges of “fraud.” Last year, three members of the Helsinki Commission twice met with Turkmenistan’s ambassador and called for Atakov’s release. In their December meeting with Ambassador Meret Orazov, the three Commissioners reiterated their call for Atakov’s unconditional release. Commissioners meeting with Ambassador Orazov were Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) and Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL).
“With the Commission having first raised this issue since early in 2000, I am very pleased the Government of Turkmenistan made this decision,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “However, this doesn’t signify the end of Turkmenistan’s work to promote human rights and religious freedom, but merely the beginning.” Mr. Smith added, “The fact that Atakov was imprisoned for three years demonstrates Turkmenistan’s profound contempt for its human rights commitments as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).”
Mr. Pitts stated, “While I certainly believe Atakov’s release is a good thing, he is clearly someone who should not have been imprisoned in the first place.” He continued, “Until the Turkmen Government decides to honor all of its OSCE commitments and makes upholding human rights for all individuals a priority, I’m afraid other innocent people will continue to suffer.”
Added Mr. Aderholt, “In our meeting with the ambassador, we also raised other cases of people unjustly imprisoned, and yet they continue to languish in jail. Despite Atakov’s apparent release, the situation for human rights and religious freedom remains poor.”
In addition, numerous Jehovah’s Witnesses have been jailed for conscientious objection or for refusing to pledge allegiance to President Niyazov. Also, Mukhamed Aimuradov, sentenced to 15 years in a maximum security labor camp in 1995, remains imprisoned. He was originally charged with plotting to overthrow the government and kill President Niyazov. In 1998, the government initiated new charges against him for allegedly attempting to escape, and he was sentenced to an additional 18-year term.
Imprisoned since 1999, Atakov was arrested on December 18, 1998 at his home in Turkmenbashi on trumped-up charges of “fraud.” On March 19, 1999, Atakov was fined $12,000 – the average monthly wage in Turkmenistan is about $30 – and sentenced to two years in prison. During his time in prison, Atakov was subjected to brutal beatings and torture by prison officials, placed in “punishment” cells, and sent to labor camps, according to credible sources. In addition, both he and his family have been pressured to renounce their religious faith.
Notably, Atakov’s situation is not completely resolved. According to reports, he has yet to receive his release certificate and all his identity papers, making the full terms of his release unknown. It is therefore unclear whether he received full clemency, a conditional release or merely parole. Turkmen authorities offered to release Atakov in May 2001, but only if he emigrated with his family to another country. He refused and remained jailed.
“With the full details still unclear, I want to reiterate our call for his unconditional release,” declared Rep. Smith. “As I told Ambassador Orazov in our December meeting, human rights are the only barrier between the United States and Turkmenistan for Permanent Normal Trade Relations.”
Overall, under President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov, serious human rights violations persist in Turkmenistan, a country that joined the OSCE in 1992. Government security forces have recently raided several Protestant churches, due to their lack of registration. Yet registration requirements are too burdensome for small faith communities to fulfill, placing them in a “catch-22.” Consequently, only Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church are allowed to legally operate, albeit under heavy state control.
In the past two months, security forces have raided several Protestant churches meeting in private apartments, interrogating and fining individuals present. Most recently, in December 2001, the government made good on its threat, evicting an individual from her flat for hosting a Seventh-Day Adventist meeting. The government has threatened others with similar treatment.
In March 2000, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing entitled “The State of Democracy and Human Rights in Turkmenistan.” This and other related information can be found at the Commission’s website.
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.