The government imprisoned religious leaders of Muslim groups deviating from what it considered to be acceptable religious doctrine and members of unregistered minority religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses for practicing their religion. Government restrictions on communications with prisoners made it difficult to ascertain the status of prisoners convicted in previous years for their religious beliefs or activities. The government sentenced several Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors for refusing compulsory military service to corrective labor terms. The government offered conscientious objectors the option to serve in non-combat roles in the military but refused to create an alternative civilian service option. Police raided the meetings of unregistered religious groups to stop their activities, and also allowed private individuals to harass registered religious groups, which sometimes had to ask for permission to conduct activities. The government did not register any new religious organizations during the year and did not re-register previously registered organizations, although it stated it did not consider previously registered groups which had not completed reregistration to be in violation of the law. The government continued to appoint all senior Muslim clerics, prevented the importation of religious literature, and created difficulties for religious groups attempting to purchase or lease buildings or land for religious purposes. The government supported pilgrims making the Hajj. It allowed some groups to invite foreign religious speakers.
According to the international NGO Forum 18, the government continued to imprison members of Muslim groups it categorized as extremist for advocating theologically different interpretations of Islamic religious doctrine. Authorities frequently referred to these persons as “Wahhabis.” According to Forum 18, prisoners categorized as Wahhabis were confined to special sections of prisons and were banned from receiving visits or exchanging correspondence with the outside world. Forum 18 reported the authorities refused requests for further information about the status of these prisoners.
Forum 18 reported Muslim leader Bahram Saparov was convicted in June at a closed trial for alleged theft and robbery, combining his two previous sentences into a new 15-year prison sentence. His trial and incarceration took place at the country’s top-security Ovadan-Depe prison. Saparov was already in prison following convictions at two trials for allegedly conspiring to seize power; calling for violent change of the constitutional order; inciting social, ethnic, or religious hatred; creating an organized criminal association; and theft of weapons, military materiel, explosive substances, and explosive devices. Saparov led a Hanafi Sunni Muslim community in Turkmenabat when he and approximately 20 members of his group were given long prison sentences in May 2013. Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) reported two members of Saparov’s group, Lukman Yaylanov and Narkuly Baltaev, died in Ovadan-Depe prison during the year. According to ATN, the men’s bodies were returned to relatives, who signed a non-disclosure form prohibiting them from talking about what they had seen. There was no information available on the sentences, location, or welfare of the other members of Saparov’s group.
According to Forum 18, MuslimYoldash Khodjamuradov, committed suicide in Turkmenabat after weeks of daily interrogation by the police, who pressured him to identify other “Wahhabis.”
Forum 18 reported Jehovah’s Witness Mansur Masharipov was arrested in June and sentenced to one year of imprisonment for allegedly assaulting a police officer in 2014 when he originally was arrested. According to Forum 18, at the time of his original arrest law enforcement officers reportedly confiscated religious literature from his home and took him to the nearest police station, where he was beaten and given injections containing unknown drugs. Masharipov was then reportedly placed in a drug rehabilitation center from which he escaped until his re-arrest in Ashgabat in June. He was reportedly appealing his sentence while in detention. There was no further information available on his case as of the end of the year.
According to Forum 18, Jehovah’s Witness Bahram Hemdemov remained in the Seydi labor camp serving a four-year sentence handed down in May 2015 for allegedly inciting religious hatred. He had been arrested in March 2015 for worshipping in his home in Turkmenabat. While in police custody, he was reportedly tortured and pressured to confess to fabricated violations.
Forum 18 reported the government’s refusal to provide information on prisoners of conscience; severe restrictions on communication with prisoners meant it was unable to establish the status of other Muslims who were previously imprisoned, including whether they remained alive. For example, it was uncertain whether Renat Bektemirov, a Muslim from Turkmenabat who had been convicted in 2008 for sharing his faith with others and questioning the preaching of the regional mufti, remained in prison.
In December various media reported authorities had detained, interrogated, and tortured dozens of alleged followers of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen after the Turkish government accused Gulen of masterminding a failed coup attempt in July.
In September Forum 18 reported the 2013 death of the imam of a Sunni mosque in Khitrovka, Ali Atayev, who had been sentenced in 2008 to a strict labor regime for 20 years for allegedly organizing an attempted coup. Atayev had been arrested following an armed clash between a local gang and security forces. According to an individual quoted by Forum 18, Atayev had been teaching Islam to children at a mosque not sanctioned by the government. Atayev’s body was not returned to his relatives.
Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to refuse compulsory military service, but according to Forum 18, no conscientious objectors to military service were known to be imprisoned; instead the government sentenced them to corrective labor. Forum 18 reported Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Dayanch Jumayev was sentenced in February in Ashgabat to one year of corrective labor. Between February and August five more Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors were reportedly given two-year suspended sentences, and one was given an eighteen-month suspended sentence. In July the UN Human Rights Committee issued a finding stating under the ICCPR the government had violated the rights of the six Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors it had sentenced through the first six months of the year, bringing the overall total of such violations to 10.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported police officers attempted to enter a private apartment in Turkmenabat on March 23 where a group of 20 Jehovah’s Witnesses had gathered for the annual observance of Christ’s death, but did not succeed in the attempt. The next day, police officers broke into the apartment and took the entire group to a police station where they reportedly assaulted two men in the group. On March 25, all the detainees except one were released; the remaining Jehovah’s Witness remained in custody for 15 days. The police reportedly issued 500 manat ($143) fines to seven members of the group, but they were not formally charged. In response to the Witnesses’ complaint about the incident, in August the Prosecutor’s Office in Turkmenabat stated the police officers had committed no violations during their “investigation.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported law enforcement authorities in Dashoguz had stopped men under the age of 50 with beards and forced them to shave the beards off. The authorities did not comment on this report.
According to representatives of religious minorities, the government continued to scrutinize and question ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam more than they did non-Turkmen, even though the law did not prohibit persons from changing their religious beliefs and affiliations.
The government did not register any new religious organizations during the year and did not re-register previously registered organizations, although previously registered organizations continued to operate during the reregistration process. Government representatives stated they did not consider previously registered groups which had not yet completed reregistration to be in violation of the law. The government did not provide information on the number of new groups which had applied for registration, although several religious groups stated they had submitted applications during the year. Some other groups stated they were in the process of resubmitting applications for registration. The MOJ stated it continued to deny registration only if an application was incomplete or if the group constituted a threat to the security of the country, but did not state how it made that determination. Several religious group members stated the registration process remained unclear, and they were unable to obtain assistance from the SCROEERIR despite previous statements the government was willing to publish the procedures and meet with the religious groups to clarify the procedures. In December, at the government’s first roundtable with religious groups in 10 years, attended by previously registered and unregistered groups, the government reportedly did not address the substance of the registration requirement, but said it would try to make registration procedures clearer.
According to government figures, there were 130 registered religious organizations operating in the country, including two new Muslim groups registered in 2015. Of the 130, 106 were Muslim, of which 101 were Sunni and five Shia; 13 were Russian Orthodox; and 11 represented other religious groups, including Roman Catholics, Bahais, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and Protestants.
Local human rights activists, who operated underground, stated officers in the MNB and Ministry of Internal Affairs responsible for fighting organized crime and terrorism reportedly continued to monitor members of religious minorities, including Christian groups, through telephonic and undercover surveillance. The activists said the attitudes of senior-level officials of the government toward religion continued to reflect the practices of the Soviet era, despite provisions of the law protecting freedom of religion.
According to Forum 18, the secret police regularly interviewed members of religious organizations and demanded they provide information about their communities’ activities.
Government enforcement of the prohibition of harassment of registered religious groups by private citizens reportedly remained uneven. For example, government officials reportedly continued to allow private citizens to interfere with religious meetings held in public. Representatives of registered religious groups said they did not report such harassment for fear of increasing government harassment and monitoring of their activities.
Representatives of registered Christian groups reported some government officials continued to require them to obtain approval to carry out routine religious activities, such as weekly services, as well as social and charitable activities, including summer camps for children. The groups reported they continued to be denied permission to conduct study groups and seminars, even when they were permitted to hold weekly services.
According to Forum 18, police authorities met with the pastor of the Baptist church in the city of Mary on February 26 and warned him not to conduct his annual summer camp. After questioning the pastor for 90 minutes, police authorities stated they knew about alleged financial support he had supposedly received in previous years from foreign countries to hold the camps and demanded he sign a statement admitting he had violated the law; the pastor refused. As of year’s end, there was no further information available with regard to the summer camp.
The government continued to ban gatherings in public or private by unregistered religious groups or unregistered branches of registered religious groups. Unregistered groups reported their members were subject to arrest for “unlawful assembly” in addition to the fines stipulated by the law. They said they continued to practice discreetly, mostly in private homes, and remained able to do so as long as neighbors did not file complaints with local authorities.
In September the government announced it would sponsor Hajj travel for 188 pilgrims, the same number as in 2015. As in previous years, the government allowed self-funded pilgrims to make their own arrangements to participate in the Hajj. In November the government reported “many citizens” had performed the Hajj independent of government sponsorship, but provided no numbers.
The government continued its practice of approving the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics. Some Muslims remained concerned about the quality of the training clerics received and about changes the government made in the leadership it appointed. The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups continued to be financed independently, and the government was not involved with the appointment of their leadership.
Members of the theology faculty in the history department at Turkmen State University in Ashgabat continued to be the only university-level faculty members allowed to provide Islamic higher education. The MNB reportedly continued to vet student candidates for admission to this program. There was no possibility of studying theology subjects other than the state-approved Islamic theology. Women remained banned from the program.
The Bahai community, as well as some other registered religious groups, continued to report it was free to share its faith in public without harassment, despite the legal ban on proselytizing.
Authorities continued to fine individuals and religious groups for unauthorized religious practices. Forum 18 reported the police in February detained, and a court later fined, members of the registered Greater Grace Church 500 manat ($143) each for allegedly distributing illegal religious literature in Tejen.
Religious groups reported the government continued to prevent them from importing religious literature and from subscribing to foreign religious publications. Although registered religious groups by law were allowed to import religious literature, they said the complex customs procedures imposed by the government made this extremely difficult. The Quran remained unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, although many people had a copy in Arabic or in Russian in their homes left over from the Soviet era. Few translations were available in the Turkmen language. The Bible also remained unavailable in state bookstores.
In early March the authorities in Ashgabat bulldozed the Sunni Muslim Aksa Mosque. According to Forum 18, the authorities stated they had destroyed the mosque because it had been “built without permission.”
According to Forum 18, the Armenian Apostolic Church continued to be unable to regain possession of its church in Turkmenbashy, which had been confiscated during the Soviet period, despite President Berdimuhamedov’s promise in 2012 to return it.
According to members of religious groups, government and state-affiliated enterprises continued to interfere in the purchase or long-term rentals of land and buildings to use for worship or meetings. Registered religious groups reported continued difficulty in renting special event space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, which they attributed to concern about government disapproval on the part of the owners. According to Forum 18, the Light of the East Church in Dashoguz remained unable to meet during the year, as it had been since early in 2015.
Authorities continued to enforce the ban on unregistered groups providing religious education.
The government continued to avoid discussions with religious groups about potential alternatives to military service for conscientious objectors, despite a 2014 statement it was willing to look into such alternatives. The government reported three Jehovah’s Witnesses served in the military during the year.
The government continued its practice of denying visas to foreigners suspected of conducting or intending to conduct missionary activity. Religious groups able to obtain religious-visitor visas for foreign religious speakers reported the government continued to grant such visas for very short durations and required the groups to complete burdensome paperwork. The government did not report the number of religious visitors it allowed to visit the country, nor did it report the number of visa applications by foreign religious visitors it had denied.
According to Forum 18, many religious believers were placed on a travel blacklist compiled by the Interior Ministry and secret police, and persons who were permitted to travel abroad were subjected to close scrutiny by officials upon departure and re-entry into the country.
In June the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) organized a three-day seminar for 20 legislators, law enforcement officials, and researchers to address issues related to “religious inclusiveness,” including teaching about other religions and the benefits of learning about other religions. The OSCE Center in Ashgabat stated the training helped enhance implementation in the country of international standards relating to freedom of religion and belief.