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Turkmen Report: March 16, 2004

16 March 2004
Second Turkmen Correspondent Released From Jail
13 March 2004

A correspondent covering Turkmenistan for a foreign broadcasting station was released from prison overnight but remains confined to the capital, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported on 13 March. Ashirguly Bayryev was the second correspondent from the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty to be freed from detention this week after international media, human rights organizations, and foreign governments protested the correspondents' detention. Bayryev spoke briefly to Radio Liberty's Turkmen Service to describe his current situation. "The criminal case against me is not closed yet. I must stay in Ashgabat. The process is continuing. We'll see what happens, but now I do not have the opportunity for further discussion as this is restricted," he said. Bayryev still faces charges of slander for his reporting on Turkmenistan. (RFE/RL's Turkmen Service)

'Rukhnama' Becomes Accessible For The Blind
12 March 2004

The "Rukhnama," the book written by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, has become accessible for the blind, ITAR-TASS reported on 12 March. The Turkmen president authorized the publishing of the book in braille and Turkey's Polymex Company sponsored the project, Deputy Director of the Turkmen State Library for the Blind and Deaf Kurban Berdykuliyev said. Six volumes of "Rukhnama" in braille have been supplied to all regional offices of the library. Last year the offices received a spoken word edition of "Rukhnama." "Rukhnama," which is the historical and philosophical writings of the president about the revival of the national spirit, is a handbook for Turkmen citizens. It is studied in all the country's educational establishments. "Rukhnama" was published for the first time in 2001 in Turkmen. There are translations of "Rukhnama" now in Russian, English, French, Japanese, Urdu, Arabic, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Belarusian, Chinese, Polish, Farsi, Kazakh, Czech, and Turkish. This year "Rukhnama" was released in Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and Dutch. South Africa is preparing to translate Rukhnama into Zulu. (ITAR-TASS)

Turkmen President Relaxes Religious Registration Rules
11 March 2004

President Niyazov on 11 March relaxed registration rules for religious organizations and exit restrictions on Turkmen citizens, AP and ITAR-TASS reported the same day. State television announced that Niyazov has scrapped a requirement that religious groups must have at least 500 members to get formal registration. State television said the decision was made "out of respect for citizens' religious freedom and in strict compliance with international norms and principles concerning religious freedom." The television also said citizens will now be allowed to leave the country without any obstacles. Until recently, Turkmen citizens needed special permission from the Foreign Ministry to leave the country. The announcements came shortly after Niyazov met with visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State B. Lynn Pascoe on 11 March. The U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat quoted Pascoe as saying he and Niyazov had discussed the law on religion. (AP, ITAR-TASS)

Niyazov Approves Free Exit From Turkmenistan
11 March 2004

President Niyazov signed an ordinance that grants citizens "freedom of exit from Turkmenistan to foreign states," ITAR-TASS reported on 11 March. The resolution titled "Concerning the improvement of the procedure of exit of citizens from Turkmenistan" notes "no obstacles must be put up to those who leave the country" and "For leaving Turkmenistan and crossing the state border it is necessary to have an entry visa of the foreign state to which a citizen is heading." This resolution marks a new step in the legislative input to the mechanism of exit from the country. At the beginning of this year, the president abolished by decree the notes permitting citizens to leave Turkmenistan, which were a must from 1 March 2003 to 8 January 2004 and were stamped at the Turkmen Foreign Ministry. The required entries in the passports of Turkmen travelers had been introduced in connection with the terrorist act committed in Ashgabat on 25 November 2002 when, according to official data, attempts were made to bring about a coup d'etat and kill President Niyazov. The latest ordinance was signed "pursuant to the international commitments to the norms and principles in the field of human rights and freedoms recognized by the international community," the text reads. (ITAR-TASS)

U.S. Official Meets Turkmen President
11 March 2004

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe on 11 March met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, RFE/RL reported the same day citing a statement of the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat. According to the statement, the two men discussed several areas of bilateral interest, including human rights, regional security, and education. Pascoe, who arrived in Turkmenistan on 10 March, said he had a "good discussion" with the Turkmen leader. (RFE/RL)

Turkmen Writer Released From Jail
10 March 2004

Turkmen writer and correspondent Rakhim Esenov was released from detention on 10 March, but remains confined to the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported the same day. The 78-year-old writer and correspondent for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty was arrested last month on charges he had smuggled copies of his own book, published in Russia, into Turkmenistan. President Niyazov said the book contained "historic crimes" in its writing. Esenov was released but he said he was warned to stop his work with the radio station: "The American Embassy, the British Embassy, the OSCE, sent protest notes demanding my release. But I also got very big support from you, Radio Liberty." (RFE/RL's Turkmen Service)

Turkmenistan Relaxes Registration Rules, Exit Restrictions
12 March 2004

By Antoine Blua

Prague, 12 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Niyazov's decision came after a meeting between the Turkmen president and visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State B. Lynn Pascoe.

"We discussed issues such as the religion law and the registration of NGOs. And the president said he was going to be taking some very interesting steps in that regard," Pascoe said.

State television later announced that Niyazov had scrapped a requirement that religious groups have at least 500 members in order to be formally registered.

In the past, Turkmen authorities have insisted that the 500 members live in a single district -- a condition that virtually eliminated all religions other than Sunni Islam or Russian Orthodoxy.

Felix Corley is the editor of Forum 18, a Norwegian-based news agency covering religious issues in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He says Niyazov's announcement comes as a surprise.

"It seems very odd, because it is not very long ago since Turkmenistan's religion law was tightened up sharply and for the first time specifically criminalized unregistered religious activity," Corley said.

That new law, which came into force in November 2003, formally outlaws all unregistered religious activity.

If Niyazov's new annulment is enacted, the Justice Ministry will theoretically be able to register a wide variety of religious communities in a country notorious for having the harshest religious policy of all the former Soviet republics.

The decree goes into force today. However, it remains unclear when it will be implemented -- if ever. Corley says he is skeptical.

"This would be the first time since the mid-1990s that any religious community, apart from the Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church, will be able to practice their faith legally. All the minority communities have been declared illegal de facto," Corley said.

Turkmen citizens like Khalmyrat Gylychdurdyev, a film director living in the capital Ashgabat, appear to have similar doubts.

"I am surprised by such things. [The religion law] has only been formally annulled; I don't really believe [something substantive has happened. There are no religious freedoms here, and they're not going to come for a while. Not until 2020. What will happen next, I don't know," Gylychdurdyev said.

The state television announcement also said citizens will now be allowed to leave the country, even if they don't have entry visas for their intended country of destination. The change, like the religion decree, is effective immediately.

Turkmenistan re-introduced exit visas in March 2003, requiring citizens to receive official permission from the Foreign Ministry in order to leave the country. Last January, Niyazov abolished the requirement, but the government continues to keep a long "blacklist" of people it does not wish to leave the country.

Erika Dailey directs the Turkmenistan Project at the Open Society Institute in Budapest. She says that, with a near-total absence of rule of law in Turkmenistan, she is skeptical Niyazov's new decree will amount to any real change in religious rights and freedom of movement.

Furthermore, she says, there is nothing to indicate that Niyazov is softening his policy on human rights.

"There's been nothing but bad news in the last couple of weeks and that certainly seems to reflect a broader trend in the government. There's much more attention to cracking down [and] to controlling. That's yet another reason why I'm profoundly skeptical these two decrees will come to anything, because it would run counter to what they're already doing in practice," Dailey said.

But Mukhamet Kelemenov, a doctor in Ashgabat, says the announcement is a positive sign in itself.

"If it has convinced [Pascoe] and was announced on television nationwide, I think that there are already some positive changes," Kelemenov said.

Dailey says both decrees seem to be in response to threats that Turkmenistan may be subject to U.S. sanctions, and may even be stripped of its most favored nation trading status with the United States.

The Soviet-era U.S. Jackson-Vanik amendment imposes trade sanctions on countries that do not allow free movement of people.

There have also been calls for the U.S. State Department to designate Turkmenistan a "country of particular concern" regarding religious freedom -- something that can also lead to sanctions. (RFE/RL)

Turkmen State Interfering In Religious Life Of Ethnic Uzbeks
10 March 2004

By Antoine Blua

Prague, 10 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The "Turkmenization" policy of the Turkmen government is targeting the education, employment, and religion of all of the country's non-Turkmen ethnic groups.

Igor Rotar is the Central Asian correspondent for Forum 18, a Norwegian-based news agency covering religious issues in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

He says that over the past year, the Turkmen government has replaced ethnic Uzbek imam-hatybs, or mosque leaders, with ethnic Turkmens in all of the main mosques of the Dashoguz region -- even though ethnic Uzbeks make up more than half the local population.

"Historically, in the Soviet times for example, most imam-hatybs in this region were [Uzbeks]. But now most of [them] are Turkmen. This is a problem because local Uzbeks complained that Turkmen imams have no good education and prefer that imam-hatybs [are] Uzbeks," Rotar said.

Rotar notes that ethnic Uzbek imam-hatybs have been sacked from their jobs in all three active mosques in the town of Dashoguz.

In the Kunya-Urgench district of Dashoguz, Uzbek imam-hatybs have been forbidden from serving at ancient sites and three cemeteries -- Ashig-Aidyn, Ibrahim-adam, and the so-called "cemetery of 3,360 saints" -- which are revered by Muslims.

Rotar says the sackings represent just a part of Ashgabat's interference in the lives of religious believers.

Authorities are also forcing imam-hatybs to place the Turkmen flag above mosque entrances. Every sermon must begin with a tribute to the country's president, Saparmurat Niyazov -- or Turkmenbashi, as he prefers to be called.

A copy of Niyazov's "Ruhnama," or "Book of the Soul," is featured prominently at the entrance of every mosque, and believers entering the building must pause to touch it with the reverence due to sacred objects.

Similar instructions have reportedly been given to other Sunni Muslim mosques and Russian Orthodox churches. Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy are the only two confessions allowed in Turkmenistan.

Meanwhile, the introduction of a visa regime in 1999 is also making it hard for Uzbek citizens to travel to sacred sites within Turkmenistan.

For people living in Uzbek districts bordering Turkmenistan, visas cost the equivalent of $6 -- one-fifth the average monthly wage there.

Rotar says the fee makes it almost impossible for Uzbek families to make pilgrimages to the many revered mosques and mazars, or graves of holy men, located on Turkmen territory.

"Some believers want to go to the holy places in Kunya-Urgench. Now it is not easy for Uzbeks from Uzbekistan to go to Kunya-Urgench or other holy places because at the border they have to pay $6 for a visa. For local people, it's big money," Rotar said.

The high cost of visas also causes problems for Uzbek families wishing to visit the graves of relatives buried in cemeteries on Turkmen land.

The Yakkalam cemetery serves the village of Avangard in the Karakalpakstan autonomous republic, in southwestern Uzbekistan. But the cemetery itself is on Turkmen territory, and is literally separated from Uzbek land by a barbed-wire fence.

One resident described the situation by saying, "During the [Islamic holidays of] Idi Qurban and Idi Ramazan, we go only up to the barbed-wire fence [at the border] and we do Tilawat [recitation] of the Quran there. We have no other choice. Because [Turkmens] don't let us go to cemetery."

Another added, "Thousands of people from [the cities of] Urgench, Gurlen, Nukus do the same. They go up to the barbed wire and cry and cry." (Khurmat Babadjanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.) (RFE/RL)