There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country. The government’s level of respect for religious freedom remained low during the year. Restrictive government practices in the treatment of some registered and unregistered groups continued. Government authorities at times disrupted meetings of unregistered religious groups. In practice when the government suspected individuals of unauthorized or unregistered activity, they were subjected to search, detention, confiscation of religious materials, verbal abuse, pressure to confess to holding an illegal meeting, and beating.
Although Jehovah’s Witnesses were reportedly able to proselytize somewhat more freely than in previous years, they continued to face periodic harassment and imprisonment. Authorities periodically subjected Jehovah’s Witnesses to short-term detention for proselytizing. Raids on meetings, unauthorized searches of apartments, interrogations, and seizure of religious literature, mobile telephones, and computers also occurred during the year. There were reports of imprisonment for conscientious objection, degrading treatment of religious prisoners, and beatings.
Authorities in Ashgabat detained a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses on November 16 on the allegedly fabricated charges of disseminating pornographic materials. Prior to his arrest, police allegedly raided the man’s home, confiscated religious materials and his computer, and beat him. Jehovah’s Witnesses report that the individual charged had never met the persons to whom police say he provided pornographic materials. Authorities continued to hold the individual in pretrial detention at year’s end.
A prisoner of conscience released during the year after serving two years in the Seydi labor colony reported that he was given barely enough food to survive and that he was held in solitary confinement for six consecutive days on a bare concrete floor in a cold cell.
A second prisoner of conscience released from the Seydi labor colony during the year also reported that a member of the Special Police Force (OMON) entered his cell on two occasions and beat him on the head and neck with his baton.
Because the country does not offer alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors that would be acceptable to many members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they often refused military service. Since 2009 12 members of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been tried and imprisoned for refusing military service. The most recent trial took place in August, during which a court sentenced one member of Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing military service. At year’s end, six members of Jehovah’s Witnesses were incarcerated in a prison at Seydi for refusing military service. Also at year’s end, a seventh individual, no longer affiliated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, remained in prison for refusing military service.
The government granted amnesty to Jehovah’s Witnesses member Ashirgeldy Taganov on August 25, after a court in Ashgabat sentenced him to 12 months in prison on July 7 for refusing military service.
Authorities in Turkmenbashi detained 16 members of an unregistered Protestant church vacationing at the Awaza resort in July. Security services reportedly raided the hotel rooms of the group, collected the identification of the 16 individuals, and took them to a police station for questioning. Members of the group reported that police verbally intimidated and insulted members of the church for being Christian. Police did not arrest any of the individuals detained, but forced them to return to the police station for questioning for the next three days before returning their identity documents.
Pastor Ilmyrat Nurlyev, leader of the unregistered Light to the World Turkmen Evangelical Church, remained in prison following his October 2010 conviction by the Mary City Court on extortion charges. Nurlyev received a four-year prison sentence and was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of 1,600 manats ($563). Nurlyev did not appeal the court’s decision. In December 2010, he was transferred to the prison at Seydi. Members of Nurliyev’s family reported in November that he had access to food, water, medical care, and visitors.
There were no new developments in the 2010 dismissal of a Jehovah’s Witness from her job for allegedly violating the law by importing religious literature of an unregistered religious group. In July 2010, upon arrival in Ashgabat on an international flight, customs authorities detained her for inspection, during which they seized religious literature and two Bibles that allegedly were for her personal use. Authorities withheld her passport and turned it over to her employer, the state-run television service, which then terminated her employment on the grounds that she had violated the law. She challenged the dismissal in court, which found that the dismissal was justified. She planned to appeal the court’s decision. There were no further developments by year’s end.
Following registration with national authorities, religious groups also must obtain approval from local authorities to carry out religious activities. Some groups reported difficulties in obtaining such permission.
As in the previous year, some groups found that by routinely notifying the government of their gatherings and events and inviting government representatives to attend, they experienced decreased government harassment.
The government restricted unregistered religious groups from establishing places of worship. Violations of that restriction were treated as an administrative offense. Ten registered minority religious groups established public places of worship, five of which were rented, two were residential buildings used exclusively as church facilities, and three were private residential homes of group members. The government forbade unregistered religious groups or unregistered branches of registered religious groups from gathering publicly or privately and could punish individuals or groups who violated these prohibitions. Some unregistered congregations continued to practice quietly, largely in private homes.
Legal and governmental obstacles hindered or prevented some religious groups from purchasing or obtaining long-term leases for land or buildings for worship or meetings. Registered groups also had difficulty renting special event space for holiday celebrations from private landlords due to concern about official disapproval. Some registered religious groups were denied permission to conduct church meetings such as study groups and seminars, apart from a weekly worship service.
Members of the theology faculty in the history department at Turkmen State University in Ashgabat were the only academic faculty members allowed to conduct Islamic education.
The government did not officially restrict persons from changing their religious beliefs and affiliation, but treated ethnic Turkmen members of unregistered religious groups accused of proselytizing and disseminating religious material more harshly than non-ethnic Turkmen. While some registered groups have been able to proselytize in public without harassment, leaders of other groups have noted that proselytizing in public was not considered a culturally appropriate activity.
Officers from the Sixth Department of the Ministry of National Security, the division charged with fighting organized crime and terrorism, monitored members of religious minorities, but those groups were able to continue to engage in regular activities.
The government denied visas to foreigners suspected of conducting or intending to conduct missionary activity. However, several registered religious minority groups were able to obtain assistance from the CRA in obtaining entry visas for foreign members of their churches.
The CRA must approve imported religious literature, and religious groups seldom received its permission. Because all members of the CRA were government officials, Sunni Muslims, or members of the Russian Orthodox Church, minority religious groups claimed to be disadvantaged regarding importation of religious materials because they had no representation on the CRA. All religious groups reportedly were prohibited from subscribing to any foreign publications. The Dashoguz office of the CRA required that its officials stamp religious literature, including Bibles and Qur’ans, to authorize them. Some groups noted the availability of printable materials on the Internet, which enabled them to get around restrictions on publication and importation of religious literature. In the past, some resident Turkish citizens reported that officials seized their personal copies of the Qur’an upon arrival at the airport. During the year, some citizens reported the seizure of personal Bibles at the airport upon arrival from foreign travel, even though the Bibles had been in their possession when they departed the country.
There were no reports of travel restrictions for religious study abroad or to attend religious conferences.
In November the government financially sponsored 186 pilgrims to travel to Mecca. The government did not provide aircraft for charter flights for self-paying pilgrims, as it had in some past years. There were no reports that self-paying pilgrims made the trip to Mecca.
Government repression of minority religious groups did not reflect doctrinal or societal friction between the Muslim majority and minority religious groups. Rather, it reportedly reflected the government’s concern that the proliferation of nontraditional religious groups could undermine state control, promote civil unrest, facilitate undue influence by foreign interests, and destabilize the government.
The government continued to discriminate against members of some religious groups with respect to employment.
Although the law prohibited the wearing of religious attire in public places, in practice, the prohibition did not extend to women’s attire, as many women wore the hijab in public.