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Turkmen Report: November 18, 2003


18 November 2003
NATIONAL NEWS
Former Turkmen Minister Facing Eight Years In Jail
15 November 2003

Former Turkmen Water Resources Minister Gurbangeldy Volmuradov will be indicted for abuse of office and could face a sentence of up to eight years in jail, Interfax reported on 15 November, citing Turkmen Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanova.

In particular, Volmuradov has been accused of collusion with a group of people for the purpose of large-scale embezzlement, including with ministry officials and workers from banks and private domestic and foreign companies. According to the Prosecutor-General's Office, the group has embezzled over 31 billion manats from state coffers over the past several years. In particular, the group is suspected of embezzling ministry workers' salaries, technical appliances, and equipment earmarked for constructing social-cultural and industrial facilities, and money earned by leasing construction machinery to foreign companies. In addition, the prosecutors said Volmuradov is a drug addict.

In the course of the continuing investigation, the prosecution office plans to expand the list of charges to be brought against the group. Commenting on the prosecutor general's information, President Saparmurat Niyazov said he is not going to intervene in the investigation and the court proceedings. "If you are innocent, then vindicate yourself, but if you are guilty, then you will be made liable," the president said. He added that the ex-minister's abuses had been mentioned on several occasions at government meetings. (Interfax)

Turkmenistan Offers To Host High Level Group Meetings
14 November 2003

Turkmen President Niyazov has suggested that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan meet with the High-Level Group in Ashgabat, ITAR-TASS reported on 14 November.

"Turkmenistan is ready to host UN events," says a message from Niyazov to Annan released on the same day. "We are ready to create conditions for meetings and consultations of the High-Level Group in Ashgabat."

Niyazov assured Annan of his support for the creation of the High-Level Group, which would analyze modern international security and peace problems and seek to strengthen UN influence in world affairs.

"Turkmenistan supports the initiative and will promote successful functioning of the High-Level Group," the message says. (ITAR-TASS)

Niyazov Appoints New Government Ministers
14 November 2003

Turkmen President Niyazov on 14 November appointed two new deputy prime ministers and sacked several ministers in his cabinet, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, ITAR-TASS and turkmenistan.ru reported. In addition to his current job as agriculture minister, Begench Atamuradov was made deputy premier. Gozel Nuraliyeva, who until now had been deputy parliament speaker and editor in chief of the newspaper "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan," was also named deputy prime minister and culture and information minister. Niyazov on 14 November also named new ministers for construction and water resources, sacking the current ministers for what he called "serious deficiencies." (RFE/RL, ITAR-TASS, Turkmenistan.ru)

Turkmenistan's Foreign Trade Balance Climbs 28 Percent In January-September
12 November 2003

Turkmenistan's foreign trade surplus jumped 28 percent year-on-year to $722.5 million in the period January-September, Interfax reported on 12 November, citing the country's national statistics and information agency.

Foreign trade during this period came to $4.419 billion, an 18.9 percent year-on-year increase. Turkmenistan traded with 81 countries. The country exported 20.4 percent more goods for $2.571 billion in January-September, importing 17 percent more products for $1.849 billion. (Interfax)

New Law On Religion Goes Into Effect In Turkmenistan
10 November 2003

A new law on religious activities went into effect in Turkmenistan on 10 November, turkmenistan.ru reported the next day. The new law formally criminalizes religious activities by any confession that is not registered by the Justice Ministry -- in effect, any confession other than Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy. Violators may be sentenced to one year of corrective labor. Previously, unregistered religious groups were subject to administrative sanctions. The new law also requires that any religious group seeking to register must prove that it has 500 members in Turkmenistan, and only clergymen with Turkmen citizenship and a higher education in theology may lead a congregation. Formation of political parties or movements on a religious basis is prohibited, along with private teaching of religion, which is also criminalized. (Turkmenistan.ru)

Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan Agree On Prisoner Exchanges
7 November 2003

The official Kazakh press published on 7 November the text of an agreement between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on the exchange of prisoners who have asked to serve their sentences in their own countries, gazeta.kz reported. The agreement has been ratified by the Kazakh parliament and signed into law by President Nursultan Nazarbaev; the Kazakh report did not say whether the same steps had been taken by Turkmenistan. The agreement specifies that convicts, their relatives, or legal representatives may submit a transfer request to their respective prosecutor-general's offices. (Gazeta.kz)

Turkmenistan Takes Further Steps To Suppress Religious Faiths
14 November 2003

By Antoine Blua

Turkmenistan's new law on religious freedom and religious organizations was signed last month by President Saparmurat Niyazov and came into force this week.

This is the first time that the 1991 religion law, which has been revised several times, has been replaced entirely. The new law specifically declares all unregistered religious activity as illegal, while a new amendment to the criminal code prescribes penalties for breaking the law.

Aaron Rhodes is the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna. He notes that with the passage of the new law, Turkmenistan joins Uzbekistan and Belarus as the only former Soviet republics where unregistered religious activity is banned: "Turkmenistan is joining the 'club' of countries in the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe region] that are illegally restricting the freedom of religion. Uzbekistan and Belarus also have such laws that ban unregistered religious activity."

Felix Corley is the editor of Forum 18, a Norway-based news agency covering religious freedom issues in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. He notes that although the Turkmen authorities have treated unregistered activity as illegal in recent years, this is the first time that such a provision has been formally incorporated into law.

Corley says the ban on unregistered religious activity will have a massive impact on the country's minority religious groups, which include Baptists, Pentacostalists, Shi'a Muslims, Jews, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas, among others: "This is really the crucial factor. Because the government will only allow the Sunni Muslim communities and the Russian Orthodox Church to register, this means every other religious community is affected by this one single article of the law. This is more important than any other provision of this law. All the procedures that it lays out for religious communities to gain registration [are] of no importance for the vast majority of religious communities, which will never get registration."

As before, registration of a given group requires that 500 adult followers live inside the country. However, in practice, these 500 believers must all live in one district, which has made it impossible for religious groups other than the majority Sunni Muslim or Christian Orthodox to register. Meanwhile a new amendment to the criminal code, which also took effect this week, makes unregistered religious activity punishable by up to one year of "corrective labor" or fines of up to 30 average monthly wages and other penalties.

Until now, unregistered religious activities such as holding religious services or privately conducting religious instruction have been punished under the code of administrative offenses. Given that Turkmen authorities have already moved to "crush" all minority faiths, Corley says, it is unclear why they would seek to tighten controls on religious activity any further: "Perhaps the very reason is that, despite these draconian controls, unregistered religious communities continue to meet to worship in secret. And the government knows this and perhaps they're moving even further to destroy them completely, which would leave the country with only two official religions: one Muslim denomination and one Christian denomination." Rhodes suggests that authorities are "hiding" behind the war on terrorism to gain even more control over the population: "My speculation would be that in the context of the war against terrorism the government feels that it can take these steps which give it more control over its population. It can take these steps and try to justify them on the basis of security."

Speaking on television earlier this month, Murad Karryev, deputy head of Turkmenistan's state Council for Religious Affairs, warned that there are "certain people" who are trying to spread their ideas in Turkmen society after receiving underground education in foreign countries. This followed an earlier statement from Justice Minister Taganmyrat Gochyev claiming that tighter control of religious groups and public organizations was needed to address security concerns.

Erika Dailey is the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, based in Budapest. She points out that the new law and amendment are consistent with a larger government effort to bring Turkmen society even further under its control: "It's worth noting that this new revised law on religion and religious organizations in Turkmenistan was signed into law at exactly the same time that a parallel law on NGOs, on nongovernmental organizations, was also signed into law. And the spirit of both new laws is very similar. It is to provide administrative oversight headed by the president himself of nongovernmental activities, whether they be religious or civic in nature." Dailey adds that this likely not a coincidence that the laws came into force in the days preceding the first anniversary of the 25 November alleged assassination attempt against President Niyazov. (RFE/RL)

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