Turkmenistan is among the most repressive states in the world today and engages in systematic and egregious violations of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Since 1985, the country has been ruled by President Saparmurat Niyazov, who, after Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991, has assumed total control of the country. His all-pervasive authoritarian rule and escalating "personality cult" effectively prevent any opposition or independent religious activity within the country. The overall human rights situation in Turkmenistan deteriorated significantly after November 2002, when, in response to a reported assassination attempt, Niyazov began arresting hundreds of relatives or associates of dissidents. Many have been sentenced to as many as 25 years in prison and others have been sent to psychiatric hospitals. Although religious freedom is severely proscribed in Turkmenistan and there is scant evidence that the situation for religious freedom has improved in the past year, the Secretary of State has not named Turkmenistan a CPC. The Commission continues to recommend that the Secretary of State designate Turkmenistan as a "country of particular concern," or CPC.

President Niyazov has promoted a state-controlled version of Islam as a key part of Turkmen identity. Since independence in 1991, religious groups must register with the government in order to engage in religious activities. The 1997 version of the religion law effectively banned all religious groups except the state-controlled Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church, though religious instruction even for these two communities is severely limited. Niyazov has allowed only one madrassa, or Islamic school, to remain open. In late March 2004, he proclaimed that no new mosques should be built and at least seven mosques are reported to have been destroyed in 2004. Imams have been instructed by the government to repeat an oath of loyalty to the "fatherland" and to the President after each daily prayer.

The status of religious freedom declined further after the passage of a new law on religion in November 2003. This law further codified the Turkmen government's already highly repressive policies that effectively ban most religious activity in Turkmenistan and established criminal penalties for those found guilty of participating in "illegal religious activity." The law also requires religious groups to coordinate with the Turkmen government any contacts with coreligionists abroad. In response to international pressure, Niyazov issued a decree in March 2004 that religious communities may register "in the prescribed manner" and will no longer have to meet the requirement of 500 members to do so. The March decree only amended those portions of the law relating to the numerical requirements for registration and not the penalties for violating it.

In May 2004, President Niyazov issued two decrees revoking criminal penalties and financial and reporting requirements from the law on religious organizations. As a result, the majority Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church, along with four small groups (Adventists, Baptists, Baha'is and the Hare Krishnas) were registered, but their situation has scarcely improved in practice. In April 2005, the Turkmen authorities indicated that they were willing to register five more small religious communities. Turkmen officials have noted, however, that this apparent easing of registration requirements does not mean that religious communities will be able to meet in private homes to conduct services, or that there is an easing of the requirement that religious groups must request permission from the Turkmen government before holding worship services of any kind. It is thus not clear what practical benefits registration provides.

President Niyazov has bolstered his personality cult with the publication of a three-volume work, Rukhnama, containing his "spiritual thoughts," which is required reading in all schools. Rukhnama quotations have been carved alongside citations from the Koran in the country's largest mosque and copies of Rukhnama are now reportedly mandatory in mosques and churches throughout the country and must be given equal prominence with the Koran and the Bible. Opposition on religious grounds to this requirement is considered a grave affront to Niyazov's power. Indeed, in March 2004, the country's former chief mufti, Nazrullah ibn Ibadullah, who had opposed the requirement to elevate the Rukhnama, was sentenced in a closed trial to 22 years in prison, reportedly on charges of treason for his stand on the Rukhnama and his purported involvement in the alleged November 2002 assassination attempt against Niyazov, though Ibadullah had publicly condemned it. The former chief mufti remains in prison and reportedly has been maltreated by prison guards.

Even before the adoption of the new law on religion, the 1997 version of the religion law made it all but impossible for religious minorities to register and function legally. Turkmen security forces routinely interrogate and intimidate believers, especially those attempting to fulfill the registration requirement. Members of unregistered religious communities – including Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Shi'a and other Muslims operating independently of the Sunni Muslim Board – continue to be arrested, detained, imprisoned, and reportedly tortured, deported, harassed, and fined. In addition, they have had their congregations dispersed, services disrupted, religious literature confiscated, and places of worship destroyed. Members of some religious minority groups in Turkmenistan have reportedly been forced to renounce their faith publicly, swearing an oath on a copy of Rukhnama. Security officials regularly break up religious meetings in private homes, search homes without warrants, confiscate religious literature, and detain and threaten congregants with criminal prosecution and deportation. Family members of detained religious leaders have been subjected to harassment and internal exile. The import of religious materials is virtually impossible. Although several Jehovah's Witnesses who had refused to serve in the military were released in 2004, several others were later jailed and then released by presidential decree in April 2005. One of the Jehovah's Witnesses, released from imprisonment in 2004, reportedly had been subjected to torture. Even the registered Russian Orthodox community has been affected by the repressive policies of Niyazov, who issued a decree banning residents of Turkmenistan from receiving Russian publications by mail, a ban that included the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate.

In 2004, the Commission raised concerns about the lack of religious freedom in Turkmenistan at several meetings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Commission also met with Tracey Jacobson, U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan, to discuss bilateral relations, the status of human rights, including religious freedom, and possible steps the United States might take to ameliorate the situation. As recommended by the Commission, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) passed resolutions condemning Turkmenistan for repression of religious and political rights in 2003 and 2004. In March 2005, the Commission met with delegation heads from the United States and European Union (EU) countries at the 61st session of the UNCHR session and presented information about violations of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, questioning the decision of the United States and the EU not to introduce a resolution on Turkmenistan at the 2005 UNCHR.

In May 2004, the Commission organized two public briefings on "Religious Freedom in Turkmenistan: the U.S. Response to One of the World's Worst Religious Freedom Violators," one held with the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the other with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Also in May, the Commission released a public statement in response to the Turkmen Ministry of Justice's declaration that unregistered religious activity continues to be illegal, noting that "CPC designation would likely lead to significant improvements for the religious communities in Turkmenistan who have been ignored by the outside world for too long."

In addition to recommending that Turkmenistan be designated a CPC, the Commission has further recommended that the U.S. government should:

  • suspend all non-humanitarian assistance to the government of Turkmenistan, with the exception of programs that serve specifically identifiable U.S. national security interests in connection with the current campaign against terrorism. This recommendation does not apply to U.S. assistance to appropriate non-governmental organizations, private persons, or cultural or educational exchanges;
  • scrutinize all aspects of any remaining assistance programs in Turkmenistan to ensure that these programs do not facilitate Turkmen government policies or practices that result in religious freedom violations. The United States should also examine its programs in Turkmenistan to determine if opportunities exist within those programs to promote the development of genuine respect for human rights, including religious freedom, in that country;
  • support efforts to facilitate Turkmenistan's sale of natural gas on world markets, including support for the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline, only if the Turkmen government takes definitive steps to improve substantially conditions for religious freedom in Turkmenistan;
  • identify specific steps that the government of Turkmenistan could take in order to have its currently suspended assistance reinstated and to avoid triggering further restrictions on assistance programs, steps which should include, but not be limited to (1) the lifting of oppressive legal requirements on religious groups and allowing all such groups to organize and operate freely; (2) the end to harassment and deportation of religious leaders; and (3) the halting of unjust arrest, detention, imprisonment, torture, and residential and workplace intimidation of religious leaders and their adherents, including releasing those currently in detention or imprisoned;
  • press the government of Turkmenistan: (a) to release immediately and unconditionally any persons who have been detained solely because of their religious beliefs, practices, or choice of religious association; (b) to ensure that all people in Turkmenistan are able to exercise their right to religious freedom without threat of harassment, detention, imprisonment, or torture; and (c) to permit all religious groups to organize and worship freely;
  • suspend state visits between the United States and Turkmenistan until such time as religious freedom conditions in the country have improved significantly; and
  • encourage scrutiny of religious freedom violations in Turkmenistan in appropriate international fora such as the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe and other multilateral venues and also raise the issue of religious freedom violations in Turkmenistan at those UN bodies that consider human rights questions, including the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and, because the United States and the EU did not introduce a resolution on Turkmenistan at the UNCHR in 2005, at the UN General Assembly's Third Committee. The United States should advocate for creation of a UN Special Rapporteur to investigate and report publicly on the human rights situation in Turkmenistan to the UNCHR and the General Assembly.

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