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11/23/02 - TURKMENISTAN HUMAN RIGHTS - 2002-11-25

Turkmenistan is playing an important role in the global fight against terrorism. But the U.S. is concerned about a pattern of human rights violations by the government of Saparmurat Niyazov.

The only religions the government of Turkmenistan recognizes are Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity. Members of non-recognized faiths face harassment, confiscation of their religious materials, and prison. Nikolay Shelehov, a Jehovah’s Witness, was sentenced to two years in prison for refusing to perform compulsory military service. Various religious congregations, including the Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals, are prohibited from establishing churches and from proselytizing.

Many Turkmen languish in prisons, unjustly convicted political prisoners. Muhamet [moo-hah-met] Aimuradov [eye-moo-rah-dov] has been in a labor camp since 1995, when authorities falsely accused him of trying to assassinate President Niyazov. The United States has urged the government of Turkmenistan to release Mr. Aimuradov.

Another human rights concern in Turkmenistan is the treatment of minorities. There are fewer and fewer Russian-language and other minority language schools available. Russians are the second largest minority in Turkmenistan. After Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the government designated Turkmen as the official language. Non-Turkman government employees were forced to learn Turkmen or face dismissal. Only a handful of non-Turkmen occupy high-level jobs in the ministries. As a result, more and more ethnic Russians are seeking citizenship in Russia.

The government of Turkmenistan has also gone after the media by suspending the subscriptions for foreign press materials. This ban particularly affects Russian-language publications. The Turkmenistan government claims that such subscriptions had become too expensive. But the government should not be making those decisions. It should be up to consumers to decide whether a publication is too costly. The Turkmenistan government also limits access to free media by controlling Internet sites.

As a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Turkmenistan is supposed to uphold fundamental rights, including freedom of the press and religion. Moreover, minority rights must be respected and political prisoners should be released. Only then can Turkmenistan begin to develop.