Turkmenistan: "Troublesome Government Practices" Persist, Says US Report

Turkmenistan - The State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom Report on September 13, writing of "troubling government practices" that persist in Turkmenistan regarding the treatment of religious groups, yet failed to designate Turkmenistan as a "country of particular concern" (CPC).

By contrast, neighboring Uzbekistan did get the CPC designation for its arrest of thousands of pious Muslims and other religious believers operating outside of the confines of state-authorized religious groups. Turkmenistan follows the same practices as Uzbekistan in ruthlessly suppressing any form of religious devotion or activism outside of strict state control, and has also failed to reform its religious law or register religious groups that comply with existing law. Yet the CPC designation, recommended by the bi-partisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF), is not something the US government wants to confer on Turkmenistan, believing it to be counterproductive even in human rights terms, and of course eager to gain further cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network

The US has placed great weight on its policy of engagement and cooperation and private diplomatic intervention to gain concessions, and last year cited the registration of a small Catholic parish made up of expatriates as “progress." But the report admits that religious freedom "diminished slightly" in the 2010 with the registration of only one Muslim group, Ibrahim Edhem, located in Dashoguz province, yet others still unable to legalize.

Last year, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) made public its review of Turkmenistan's Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations. Among its recommendations, ODIHR called for the abolition of the "blanket prohibition" on unregistered religious activity, a more simplified registration procedure, and an end to the ban on private religious teaching. Despite new a new OSCE mission head in Ashgabat and increased engagement with OSCE (the rapporteur on freedom of the media vvisited recently and organized training), Ashgabat seems to have ignored the OSCE recommendations without comment.

As in other post-Soviet states, the government seems to engage in a displacement strategy, building large, ceremonial mosques under state control. As we know from state media coverage in the past year, these are often used as a backdrop to the president's appearances on state or religious holidays. As the report notes, most of the small mosques in rural areas are not supported and the clerics there are elderly volunteers.

Conscientious objection is prohibited, and a number of Jehovahs' Witnesses were sentenced to jail terms for refusing military service. Small Protestant groups are heavily discouraged. This year, a Baptist pastor was prosecuted for alleged embezzlement on very shaky evidence obtained from a former prisoner which was disclaimed by counsel and human rights,activists. Strict limitations are placed on distribution of religious literature.

As elsewhere in Central Asia, the government is fearful of the spread of Islamic extremism and has cracked down on the slightest manifestation of it.