RELEASE OF POLICY FOCUS TURKMENISTAN
December 18, 2007
Remarks by Commission Chair Michael Cromartie
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to this launch
of the Commission's report on Turkmenistan. I would like to thank Freedom House for
co-sponsoring this event.
Under President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December 2006, Turkmenistan
was among the world's most repressive and isolated states. Almost no independent public activity was
allowed and severe government restrictions meant that most religious and other
activity was under strict and often arbitrary state control. The 2003 law
on religion codified the country's highly repressive policies, in effect
banning most religious activity. Turkmenistan's
public life, especially education and religion, was dominated by Niyazov's
quasi-religious personality cult, particularly his two-volume work of
"spiritual thoughts" known as the Ruhnama.
Since 2000, the Commission has recommended that Turkmenistan be
designated by the Secretary of State as a "country of particular concern," or
CPC. Under the U.S. International
Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the CPC designation should be applied to
governments that engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of
religious freedom and related human rights.
Despite the Commission's repeated recommendation, however, the U.S. government has never designated Turkmenistan as
President Niyazov's successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has set in motion
some reforms in the education and health sectors. In addition, he has undertaken limited,
positive steps relevant to religious freedom and other human rights. These include:
- he release in August 2007 of 11 political
- a de-emphasis of Niyazov's oppressive personality
- setting up two new official commissions relevant
to human rights;
- andexpressed willingness to consider reform of the
country's religion law.
oppressive laws and practices remain in place.
The Commission traveled to Turkmenistan
to try to assess the new government's statements and actions. We were one of the first U.S. government
delegations on the ground, and we were the first to focus on human rights. Our delegation met with the president and the
Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Justice, Education, Culture, and Internal
Affairs, as well as other government representatives. The delegation also held meetings with
religious communities and civil society organizations.
The Commission raised key concerns with Turkmen government
personality cult's negative impact on public life and on human rights;
- intrusive registration procedures for peaceful
- penalties imposed on unregistered religious communities deemed
"illegal" under Turkmen law;
- obstacles to the purchase or rental of land or
buildings for worship services; and
- the ban on the import and printing of religious
and other material.
At this time, the Commission continues to recommend that Turkmenistan be
designated a CPC due to persistent, serious problems with regard to freedom of
religion or belief and other human rights.
The Commission acknowledges that the government has undertaken some
positive steps and encourages it to implement reforms to bring Turkmenistan's
laws, policies, and practices into accord with international human rights
norms. At the very least, these steps
should include reform of the religion law and the removal of any state-imposed
ideology from the religious practice of Turkmenistan's citizens.
I would like to briefly discuss some of the main findings
from the Commission's report on Turkmenistan:
- The 11 political prisoners released by
President Berdimuhamedov at the recommendation of a new official commission to
examine the work of law enforcement bodies included the country's former chief
mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who had been sentenced in a secret trial on
unsubstantiated charges of involvement in an alleged coup attempt. The Commission delegation took part in a
meeting with the former chief mufti, whose imprisonment the Commission had long
- The president and other officials also told
the Commission that the Turkmen government is considering the adoption of
certain legal reforms relevant to human rights, including religious
freedom. During the Commission visit,
the president announced the formation of a new commission to examine how Turkmenistan's
legislation conforms to international human rights commitments.
- Significant religious freedom problems and
official harassment continue and, at least in some regions, certain religious
freedom conditions may be deteriorating:
- Religious practice continues to be fully
controlled by the state, including severe limitations on religious instruction
even for the two largest religious communities, Sunni Muslims and Orthodox
- The repressive 2003 religion law remains in
force, which includes serious difficulties for the legal functioning of
religious minority religious groups.
- Despite an apparent decreased emphasis on the
forcible state promotion of former President Niyazov's spiritual writings, or Ruhnama, the book continues to be
present in mosques, which are tightly controlled by the state.
- Police raids on and other forms of harassment of
registered and unregistered religious groups have increased somewhat,
particularly on the local level, at least during the first six months of
- Some of the provisions of the 2003 religion
continue to violate international standards with regard to freedom of religion
or belief, including:
- the requirement that the religious groups must
be registered in order for their activities to be legal;
- the strict government control of, and
limitations on, people's ability to gather for worship; and
- severe restrictions on religious education.
- Obtaining worship space is difficult for
most if not all communities. For
unregistered groups, it is virtually impossible, as it is illegal for them to
rent or buy worship space. Worship in private homes, even for members of
registered groups, is strictly limited to nuclear families; security officials routinely break up religious meetings in
private homes and search homes without warrants.
- Various minority religious communities, both
registered and unregistered, continue to face official harassment, particularly
outside the capital city of Ashgabat. These problems include police raids,
detentions, and threats by police and other security services, as well as
demands for payment of onerous fines, some of which were levied by courts years
ago. Religious literature is also
- The printing and import of religious
literature continues to be rigorously controlled and limited by the government
and customs agents still confiscate religious materials
- There continue to be restrictions on freedom
of movement on account of religion. For
example, the Turkmen authorities continue to place severe limits on the number
of Muslims permitted to perform the hajj.
Moreover, despite official
protestations to the contrary, the Turkmen government still appears to have a
secret "black list" of individuals who are denied permission to leave the
- There are some, though contradictory,
indications that the new government has decreased official emphasis on President
Niyazov's all-pervasive personality cult and the Ruhnama. For example, President Berdimuhamedov
has made some initial attempts to curtail the imposition of the sworn oath of
loyalty to President Niyazov. Although
the Ruhnama continues to be part of the school curriculum,
government officials told the Commission that they have decreased time devoted
to its study
the Turkmen government is still promoting the Ruhnama in
religious affairs and as a mandatory aspect of public education. The Ruhnama
remains a required aspect
of school exams, and in September 2007, the government sponsored an
international conference devoted to the text.