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Turkmen Report: May 20, 2003

20 May 2003
Turkmenistan Marks Day Of Revival, Unity, And Makhtumkuli Poetry
18 May 2003

On 18 May, Turkmenistan marked the Day of Revival, Unity, and Poetry of Makhtumkuli, an 18th century poet and philosopher, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. The Turkmen Constitution was adopted on this day 11 years ago. "It was a resolute step, which provided for crucial changes in the political system and the choice of a public and state system to meet the national character of the Turkmen people, their national self-consciousness, mentality, traditions, and customs," said President Saparmurat Niyazov during the celebrations. The proceedings started in the morning with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Independence Monument in the capital, Ashgabat. Later in the day there were concerts and quizzes testing citizens' knowledge of classic Turkmen poetry and the book, "Rukhnama," authored by the president. (ITAR-TASS)

Turkmenistan To Purchase Two Boeings
16 May 2003

The Turkmen government will buy two Boeing 717-200 planes, spares, and equipment under a contract signed with the U.S. Boeing company on 16 May, Interfax reported the same day, citing a source in the Turkmen president's office. According to the contract, Turkmenistan is to pay Boeing $64.8 million. An advance payment of $22.3 million will be made within the next few days. "Our interaction with the company will expand and develop," President Niyazov said during the signing ceremony. He also asked Boeing to build a super-comfortable and secure presidential Boeing 767. (Interfax)

Turkmenistan Cuts Number Of Flights To Moscow
15 May 2003

Turkmenistan's Turkmen Hava Yollary airline has suspended two of its daily flights from Ashgabat to Moscow "pending a special order," Interfax reported on 15 May, citing a source in Ashgabat. According to the source, the reason for suspending the flights was that too many tickets remain unsold. A new rule requiring Turkmens and dual Turkmen-Russian citizens to have a visa to leave the country has made exiting Turkmenistan difficult for many. The Foreign Ministry has the right to take up to a month to consider a visa application and refuse a visa without any explanation. (Interfax)

Turkmenistan Ready To Extradite Three Russian Suspects
14 May 2003

The Foreign Ministries of Russia and Turkmenistan have exchanged official notes on Turkmenistan's readiness to extradite three Russian nationals who allegedly took part in the assassination attempt on President Niyazov last November, ITAR-TASS reported on 14 May. A spokesman for the Turkmen law enforcers said that Amirbek Bishoyev, Ruslan Sadullayev, and Magomet NurAliyev were arrested together with 60 other suspects, including six Turkish nationals, one American, and one Uzbek. The Turkmen authorities haven't put the foreigners on trial and the six Turks, the American, and the Uzbek have been deported from Turkmenistan to their native countries. Their cases have been handed over to the law enforcement agencies of their respective countries. The criminal cases of the three Russian citizens contain accusations under Article 277 of the Russian Penal Code: encroachment on the life of a state or public figure, which is punishable by between 12 and 20 years in prison. The trials of the Turkmen citizens involved in the attempt on Niyazov's life, including those with dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship, finished earlier this year. More than 20 of them have been convicted to life imprisonment or long prison terms. (ITAR-TASS)

Caspian Sea Countries Conduct A New Round Of Talks
12 May 2003

Differences have been narrowed at the latest session of the Special Working Group on drafting a convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, Interfax and IRNA reported. "We have reviewed the whole text of the convention and coordinated over 40 percent [of it]. However, it would be naive to think that there are no more differences," Kazakh First Deputy Foreign Minister Kairat Abuseitov said at a press conference in Almaty on 14 May, after three days of talks. Fishing and navigation issues have still not been finalized, Abuseitov said, and the delegations will continue working on the document in their home countries. Bilateral meetings will be held between sessions, he said. The group will convene again on 20-25 July in Moscow. (Interfax, IRNA)

Niyazov, Dragon Oil Discuss Cheleken Oil Project
12 May 2003

Turkmen President Niyazov and Hussein Sultan, head of the United Arab Emirates' national oil company Dragon Oil, discussed the development of the Cheleken offshore project at a meeting in Ashgabat on 12 May, Interfax reported citing a spokesman for Niyazov. Dragon Oil boosted oil production in 2002, drilling four new wells, Hussein said at the meeting. Production at the Jeitun and Jigalybek reservoirs, which are part of the Cheleken project, rose from 6,000 to 15,000 barrels a day. Hussein also briefed Niyazov on the success of negotiations on the construction of a new self-propelled floating oil rig. The site for this rig has already been determined, he said. Dragon Oil and the Turkmen government signed a production-sharing agreement for the Cheleken site in November 1999. Cheleken contains an estimated 600 million barrels of oil and more than 65 billion cubic meters of gas. Turkmenistan expects to earn $4.7 billion from the project. (Interfax)

U.S. Agency Criticizes Religious Rights Abuses Around The World
14 May 2003

By Jeffrey Donovan

A U.S. federal agency promoting religious freedom is singling out Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia as major abusers of religious rights, which it says are endangered in Russia and Belarus, as well.

In its annual report, released yesterday, the independent and bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also expressed dismay that Washington has not designated several autocratic states as "countries of particular concern" on religious freedom. In the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Bush administration improved ties with many autocratic countries, such as Uzbekistan and Pakistan, in exchange for help in counterterrorism.

Washington denies that its improved relations has diminished its focus on those countries' noted human rights abuses. But commission chief Felice D. Gaer told a briefing that the agency believes the United States has compromised itself: "If there has been one concept that has characterized this commission, it has been the awareness and the conviction that terrorist attacks do not justify a trade-off of U.S. policy on human rights and religious freedom in exchange for cooperation in counterterrorism efforts."

Following recommendations last year by the commission -- which is an official advisory body to Congress and the White House -- China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Burma were reclassified as countries of particular concern last March. The designation enables the U.S. government to explore ways in which it can pressure them to change. In its latest report, the commission says it is "deeply disappointed" that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell did not also give that designation to India, Laos, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam. It said the commission has put on a "watch list" several countries where violations of religious freedom are tolerated. These include Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Uzbekistan, which the commission urges the U.S. State Department to continue to monitor for further violations.

Among U.S. allies, the commission said Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are among the most worrisome examples of religious rights violators. Although Kabul has a U.S.-supported government in the wake of the war to oust the Taliban, the commission says Washington risks losing the peace in Afghanistan, where repressive factional commanders and warlords continue to hold sway outside the capital. Commissioner Leila Nadya Sadat expressed concern that the Taliban's old Ministry of Virtue, which once used torture and execution to enforce the government's interpretation of Islamic or Sharia law, has been reconstituted in a "gentler guise." Sadat added that some Afghan judges have endorsed torture and amputation against non-Muslims: "The groundwork is potentially being laid in Afghanistan for a regime that may become almost as oppressive as the Taliban was, particularly with regard to religious freedom. This is occurring, we believe, with the consent and in some cases, even assistance, from the United States government."

The commission recommends that the Bush administration works to improve security in Afghanistan by supporting an expanded role outside Kabul for international peacekeepers. It is also urging Washington to ensure that human rights are fully guaranteed in Afghanistan's new constitution, and that judicial reforms are carried out. Afghanistan appeared to most closely resemble Saudi Arabia, where commission Vice Chairman Michael Young urges the United States to take its longtime ally to task. Young says religious freedom does not exist at all in Saudi Arabia, which allows only the practice of its Wahhabi brand of Islam. Young said Riyadh is guilty of a variety of religious rights violations: "They include a virtually complete prohibition in establishing non-Wahhabi places of worship and the public expression of non-Wahhabi religions [and] the detention, imprisonment, and torture of Shia clerics and Christian foreign workers for expressing their religious views or worshiping in private. The interpretation or enforcement of religious laws in Saudi Arabia affects every aspect of women's lives and results in serious violations of their human rights, as well."

As for Russia, the commission said that while it certainly cannot be lumped together with Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, Moscow is backsliding on its commitment to ensure religious freedom despite great progress since the fall of the Soviet Union. Commissioner Firuz Kazemzadeh said Catholics, Jews, and Protestants are clearly being discriminated against, despite the fact that Russia's post-Soviet constitution enshrines the right of religious freedom: "There has been a tendency on the part of the government to reach a kind of compromise with the Orthodox Church, giving a primacy in the religious field to the Orthodox Church at the expense of other religions. There have been statements made about other religions, particularly about the Muslims, that put the whole Muslim community in danger of discrimination, which has occurred on many occasions." The commission urges Washington to raise concerns about the growing influence of what it called "undemocratic forces" on Russian government policies, and to oppose attempts to roll back religious freedom.

It also recommends that the U.S. government take steps to help protect religious minorities in Russia and to continue to support forces that advance democracy and human rights. As for Belarus, which has what it calls "a highly authoritarian government," the commission is urging Washington to use "every measure of diplomacy to advance the protection of human rights, including religious freedom." The commission, which sent a delegation to Minsk last January, is calling for better monitoring of religious rights abuses in Belarus. A law was passed in Belarus last year that severely restricts the freedom of worship and has been called Europe's most repressive religion law.