Summary Paragraph: A Muslim prisoner arrested in 2013 in Turkmenabat for participating in a religious study group died in a government maximum security prison. An NGO described his body as “incredibly thin” and “blue from beatings.” A court sentenced 18 men of terms up to 25 years in prison in what appeared to be a purge of individuals associated with Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. An international NGO stated the men were reportedly tortured while in custody. Authorities sentenced 12 army officers in Serdar to lengthy prison sentences for propagating “nontraditional Islam.” Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups continued to experience harassment, physical mistreatment, raids, fines, seizure of literature, and house searches. State institutions dismissed employees due to their religious activities, including prayer. The government did not register any new religious organizations during the year, but Forum 18 reported the government reregistered one Pentecostal community in Ashgabat and one in Dashoguz. The government continued to appoint all senior Muslim clerics, prevent the importation of religious literature, and create difficulties for religious groups attempting to purchase or lease buildings or land for religious purposes.
According to Forum 18, Aziz Gafurov, a Muslim prisoner arrested in Turkmenabat in 2013, died in government custody during the summer in Ovadan-Depe maximum security prison. Gafurov was one of 20 Muslims arrested after participating in a religious study group and sentenced to long prison terms for multiple offenses, including conspiracy to seize power and incitement of social, ethnic, or religious hatred. According to Forum 18, Gafurov was the third member of the Turkmenabat group known to have died in prison. According to Forum 18, the relatives of the other members of the Turkmenabat group were not allowed to visit the men in prison and did not know whether they were still alive. Witnesses described Gafurov’s body as “incredibly thin” and “blue from beatings”.
In October Forum 18 reported Jehovah’s Witness and Protestant groups continued to face harassment, torture, raids, fines, seizure of literature, and house searches. On May 17, three plain-clothed officers conducted an unauthorized search of a Jehovah’s Witness home in Turkmenabat and seized a passport, laptop, and personal books. During the search, the officers reportedly strangled the Witness, threw him to the floor, twisted his hands, and forcefully shut his mouth to keep him from calling for help. On January 20 in another incident in Turkmenabat, law enforcement officers raided the home of a Witness family, beat several members of the family, including a 14-year-old boy, and seized copies of religious publications, laptops, and mobile phones. On May 19, two police officers shoved a Jehovah’s Witness into a car, causing bruises on her arms, and detained her for approximately eight hours. The police officers demanded she write an explanatory note and stop talking about her faith to others. Upon her release, the Witness went to the hospital for a medical exam to document the rough treatment by police. The police officers later arrived at the hospital and threatened her with an administrative offense. Jehovah’s Witnesses said more than half of all such incidents targeting members of their community in the country took place in Turkmenabat.
Forum 18 reported police raided a meeting of Protestants and detained the group’s leader in mid-May. Also in May Forum 18 reported police detained the leader of a Protestant religious community after the leader’s neighbor attended a meeting for worship, stole a Bible, and reported the leader to the police.
Human Rights Watch reported that on February 8, a court sentenced 18 men to up to 25 years in prison in what appeared to be “a purge of people associated with Turkish schools believed to have been previously affiliated with the Gulen movement.” The 18 men were among an estimated 100 people arrested in Ashgabat in September and October 2016; authorities released the others. Individuals close to the case said the men were tortured while in custody. According to Human Rights Watch, beginning in late April police arrested approximately 20 individuals in Lebap Province for affiliation with the Gulen movement. The opposition website Chronicles of Turkmenistan (Chronicles) reported 19 businessmen with alleged connections to the Gulen movement detained during a September 2016 police raid were being held without official charges and subjected to various forms of physical abuse by unidentified individuals. The detainees were reportedly former students of Turkmen-Turkish high schools and graduates of the former Turkmen-Turkish University.
In September the family of Annamurad Atadyev, who was reportedly sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2016 on charges that included “organization of or participation in a criminal community” and “excitement of social, national or religious hatred,” told Forum 18 he had not been seen since his trial. According to Forum 18, Atdayev’s conviction followed his arrest in September 2016, a year after returning from studying Islam in Egypt. The MNB had reportedly interrogated Atdayev about his fellow Turkmen students in Egypt and asked him to become an informer for the organization regarding other Muslims in Ashgabat. He refused.
According to Forum 18, the government continued to imprison members of Muslim groups it categorized as extremist for advocating theologically different interpretations of Islamic religious doctrine. In January Forum 18 reported that former prisoners said prisoners branded as “Wahhabis” (which Forum 18 said meant any devout Muslim that officials disliked) were subjected to harsh treatment and often confined in special sections of prisons.
On May 12, the government released from prison Mansur Masharipov, a Jehovah’s Witness, as part of a general amnesty. In June 2016 Forum 18 reported authorities had arrested Masharipov and sentenced him to one year in prison for assaulting a police officer; he was originally arrested in 2014. 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 injected with unknown drugs. Masharipov was then reportedly placed in a drug rehabilitation center, from which he escaped until his re-arrest in Ashgabat in June 2016.
In June Chronicles reported that authorities arrested and charged army officers in the city of Serdar with propagating “nontraditional Islam.” Twelve officers received prison sentences, according to various Chronicles sources, ranging from 10-15 years to 18-23 years.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Jehovah’s Witness Bahram Hemdemov continued to be passed over for amnesty, which the government grants to prisoners three times a year. According to Forum 18, 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, authorities reportedly tortured him and pressured him to confess to fabricated violations. In August 2016 an appeal on Hemdemov’s behalf was submitted to the UN Human Rights Council.
Forum 18 reported the government continued to refuse to provide information on prisoners. Severe restrictions on communication with prisoners prevented Forum 18 from establishing their status, 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. Forum 18 reported authorities often jailed Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestants as short-term prisoners of conscience for up to 15 days. The government cited public disorder as the reason for their detention.
In October Forum 18 reported the MOJ had reregistered one Pentecostal community in Ashgabat and one in Dashoguz. According to Forum 18, the government stated many applications from other communities seeking to reregister contained “errors.” No information was reported on the number of communities seeking reregistration. Government representatives said they did not consider previously registered groups, who had not yet completed their reregistration, to be in violation of the law.
According to government figures, there were 130 registered religious organizations operating in the country. Of the 130, 106 were Muslim, of which 101 were Sunni and five Shia; 13 Russian Orthodox; and 11 categorized as other religious groups, including Bahais, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
The government did not register any new religious organizations during the year or provide information on the number of new groups that had applied for registration. Several religious groups stated they had submitted applications, which the MOJ returned citing administrative errors. By year’s end the government had not provided any new information regarding the registration process for religious organizations, and the registration process remained unclear.
According to Forum 18, state institutions dismissed employees during the year due to their religious activities. A Muslim told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that he was dismissed from the armed forces after he refused to stop praying. Authorities initially instructed him to stop praying at work and subsequently searched his home and seized a Quran. When he continued to pray, Ministry of Defense officials summoned him, demanding he write a statement and a letter of resignation, after which authorities forced him and his family to leave their military accommodations. An employee of another state organization told RFE/RL he also had been fired for refusing to stop praying. According to RFE/RL, cases of Muslims fired for praying in the military and elsewhere in government were likely increasing.
Local underground human rights activists stated MNB and MVD officers responsible for fighting organized crime and terrorism continued to monitor members of religious minorities, including Christian groups through telephonic and undercover surveillance. The activists said the attitudes of senior government officials toward religion reflected Soviet-era practices, despite legal provisions protecting freedom of religion.
Unregistered groups reported their members were subject to arrest for “unlawful assembly” in addition to fines stipulated by law. Members of these groups said they continued to practice discreetly, mostly in private homes, and could do so as long as neighbors did not file complaints with local authorities.
According to Forum 18, the secret police continued to regularly interview members of religious organizations and demanded they provide information on their communities’ 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. Multiple groups reported they were denied permission to conduct study groups and seminars, even when they were permitted to hold weekly services.
On October 9, Forum 18 reported the government continued its campaign of mosque demolition in Ashgabat. The capital had 14 mosques in the early 2000s, but authorities had forcibly demolished eight through April 2016. An Ashgabat resident reported on October 4 another mosque had been demolished in the capital. At year’s end a new mosque was under construction in Ashgabat’s Parabat 7/3 neighborhood.
In August the government announced it would sponsor Hajj travel for 160 pilgrims, a decrease from previous years and the lowest since 2009. According to Forum 18, those allowed to join the government-sponsored Hajj group needed approval from several state agencies, including the police and the MNB. Joining the government-sponsored group cost approximately 7,000 manat ($2,000), according to Forum 18. The government reported 1,340 people were self-funded but did not report how many people applied for the pilgrimage. As in previous years, the government allowed self-funded pilgrims to make their own arrangements to participate in the Hajj.
The government continued its practice of approving the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics. Some Muslims said they remained concerned about the quality of the training clerics received and about changes the government had made in the leadership it appointed. The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups continued to be financed independently; the government was not involved with appointing leadership for these groups.
Religious groups reported the government continued to prevent them from importing religious literature and from subscribing to foreign religious publications. Although by law registered religious groups were allowed to import religious literature, they said the government’s complex customs procedures made it extremely difficult. The Quran remained unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, although many people kept a Soviet-era copy in Arabic or Russian in their homes. Few translations were available in the Turkmen language. The government did not authorize distribution of a Turkmen-language translation of the Bible printed in Russia.
Members of various religious groups reported the government and state-affiliated enterprises continued to interfere in the purchase or long-term rentals of land and buildings for worship or meeting purposes. Registered religious groups reported continued difficulty in renting space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, which they attributed to landlords’ concerns about potential government disapproval.
Forum 18 reported Jehovah’s Witness and Protestant children faced harassment in schools outside of Ashgabat. Authorities fired a state school employee and member of the Jehovah’s Witness community due to his religious beliefs in Dashoguz. On January 14, the Turkmen National Institute of World Languages, a public university in Ashgabat, dismissed a woman because she was studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to Forum 18, teachers, principals, local officials, and Muslim clerics publicly “vilified” non-Muslim children. Jehovah’s Witness children faced additional pressures because of their refusal, on religious grounds, to wear the national flag, including on pins as part of their school uniform; sing the national anthem; or recite the national oath of allegiance. On January 30 in Turkmenabat, a school’s director of studies demanded two Witnesses students sign a paper stating they “would not trust in other religions anymore.” The director summoned the students’ mother to his office, where police questioned why her children did not wear the national flag pin, sing the national anthem, or recite the national oath. When she asked to see a law requiring her children to do so, the police threatened to search her home.
Theology faculty in the Turkmen State University history department 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 for studying theological subjects other than state-approved Islamic theology. Women remained banned from the program.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that young men were no longer imprisoned as conscientious objectors, but continued to face tremendous pressure to enlist in the military.
On February 14, Jehovah’s Witness Vepa Matyakubov received a two-year suspended sentence of correctional labor for refusal to serve in the armed forces. In 2016, under pressure from Enlistment Office representatives, Matyakubov signed a “call-up notice,” committing him to serve in the army. Matyakubov did not appeal the sentence.
On February 8, Jehovah’s Witnesses met with MVD representatives to discuss the possibility of alternative service for Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 2014 the government stated it was willing to look into alternatives for conscientious objectors.
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. As in previous years, 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 of foreign religious visitors it had denied.
According to Forum 18, the MVD and secret police placed many religious believers on a “travel blacklist.” Officials subjected persons permitted to travel abroad to close scrutiny upon departure and re-entry into the country.