Friday, January 24, 2003

Turkmenistan: "Cracks in the marble".

Date: Friday 24 January 2003
Subj: Turkmenistan: "Cracks in the marble".
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator


On 25 November 2002, gunman opened fire on the car carrying Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurad Niyazov. Afterwards, President Niyazov told an emergency cabinet meeting that a truck had pulled out and blocked the path of his car. Attackers then opened fire on the presidential convoy from the truck and two other vehicles. Amazingly, the President was not even injured in the attack, which he has labelled as an assassination attempt.

In fact, the "assassination" was so brilliantly blundered that some observers and analysts suspect Niyazov may have set it up himself. Without a moments delay he began to name political opponents as suspects. A massive purge ensued, quickly and mercilessly, on political opponents, discontents and foreigners, attracting international attention.

On 17 January 2003 the Brussels based International Crisis Group (ICG) ( released a report on Turkmenistan entitled, "Cracks in the Marble: Turkmenistan's Failing Dictatorship." A summary of the report can be found at the link given below. It contains a further link to the full 51-page report, available in pdf format.

I highly recommend the full 51-page report to anyone working on religious liberty issues in Turkmenistan. It is comprehensive and yet concise, and while it gives only a small space to religious persecution, it gives good political background and goes into great and fascinating detail about the failing power structures within present-day Turkmenistan.


Religious persecution is mentioned in the summary. "Under Niyazov's repressive rule, alternative political parties have been outlawed, there are no free media outlets, access to the Internet is severely restricted, and non-official religious groups are persecuted."

Regarding persecution of Christians, ICG's full report states, "Despite constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, non-traditional denominations are barred from basic activities. The law on religious organisations requires that religious groups must have at least 500 members in each locality in which they wish to register in order to gain legal status. In practice, this means that, unlike Sunni Muslims and Russian Christian Orthodox believers, members of the Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Pentecostalist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'I and Hare Krishna churches are unable to register and are, therefore, persecuted by the KNB." (page 25)

(NB - the KNB is the "Komitet Natsionalnoi Bezopastnosti" or Committee for National Security - successor to the Soviet KGB.)

"Non-Russian-Orthodox Christian groups such as Baptists have also suffered harassment and persecution, including torture of clergy and confiscation of Property." (page 26)


The report describes the KNB and prison system that Turkmenistan's Christians know so well.

"The KNB was given absolute power over other state institutions to carry out its work and enjoyed immunity, with no real accountability under the justice system, until March 2002. It is believed to employ up to 3,000 members and a much wider network of informers. Its methods of control include the collection of compromising materials on potential opponents and blackmail, but it also frequently resorts to harassment, abductions, imprisonment, torture and assassination by special agents." (page 6)

"Persons detained by the KNB are either sent to prisons or immediately to labour camps where mortality rates are extremely high. Prisoners in these camps are repeatedly beaten and tortured by guards and forced to carry out strenuous work in appalling conditions. Batyr Mukhamedov, a journalist who was imprisoned for 27 weeks in labour camps, described daily cases of abuse, including deaths caused by beatings with metal instruments. An estimated 20,000 people - both criminals and regime opponents are imprisoned in camps, including camps for women and psychiatric hospitals." (page 7)

It is sobering to consider that peaceful Christians such as Baptist lay-preacher Shageldy Atakov, have suffered through the prison and labour camp system, and young men such as Protestant pastor Shokhrat Piriyev and his colleagues have been tortured almost to death at the hands of the KNB, dispossessed of everything they owned, for possession of Jesus videos. Turkmenistan's Church has lived with this terror for many years.


What is most interesting to know is that the KNB may be turning against President Niyazov. In his paranoia over absolute power, he has been purging the KNB ruthlessly.

"Niyazov began his move against the KNB in March 2002, when he dismissed Mukhammed Nazarov, the organisation's head and hitherto one of his most loyal supporters. Nazarov was arrested and sentenced to twenty years in prison. A further 60 officers are also believed to be in prison, and some reports suggest that at least four officers have been executed, and 80 per cent of the leadership of the KNB has been affected by the purge." (page 9)

"Despite Niyazov's efforts, the KNB still appears to represent a potential source of opposition. The purges have provoked widespread opposition, according to those with contacts in the security forces. One interviewee says: 'The officers are extremely resentful because they are now falling victims to the system that they applied to society for years: arrests, torture, imprisonment, and confiscation of property. They realise that they have lost their protected position and now have nothing else to lose.'

"According to another observer, 'Many KNB agents have destroyed files, and refuse to follow orders from Turkmenbashi (Niyazov). Basically, the KNB is not functioning any more'." (page 9)


Cracks in the Marble: Turkmenistan's Failing Dictatorship.
International Crisis Group.
Osh/Brussels, 17 January 2003