APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020

Turkmenistan has over 5 million people, and serious systemic violations of many human rights take place. All exercise of freedom of religion or belief with others without state permission is illegal, with severe restrictions on permitted belief communities.

Muslims are afraid to visibly fast and mark Ramadan, and Muslim young men are afraid to grow beards as police often target bearded men. One Muslim stopped going to mosque after police asked: “Who is more important, Allah or the President?” Known Muslim prisoners of conscience include a large group of Muslims who met in Turkmenabad in 2013 to study Islam and were subsequently arrested and jailed. It is unknown whether any are still alive; five Muslims who in 2017 met in Balkan Region with others to pray and study their faith using the works of theologian Said Nursi, and were jailed for 12 years each. Four of the five are in the top-security prison at Ovadan-Depe, where prisoners have suffered torture and death; Annamurad Atdaev, given a 15-year strict regime prison term in 2016 for refusing to become an informer for the MSS secret police.

As of January 2021, ten Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors to compulsory military service are known to be currently detained or serving labour camp terms of between one and four years. In the latest such known jailing, on 3 September 18-year-old Myrat Orazgeldiyev was jailed for one year. Like all 24 conscientious objectors jailed since January 2018, he had offered to do alternative civilian service but Turkmenistan has rejected repeated UN calls to introduce this. Eight are in Seydi Labour Camp, where conditions are described as “inhuman.”

Prison administrations must regularly inform higher authorities, such as the Prosecutor’s Office and the Interior Ministry, of the number of jailed: “adherents of banned religious organisations” (all exercise of freedom of religion and belief by groups of people without state permission is banned, this category could be very wide); alleged “Wahhabis”; “Jehovists”; and “Suleimanists” (an apparent reference to followers of Turkish-influenced Islam).

Some prisons (except Ovadan-Depe strict regime prison) have a mosque and a small Russian Orthodox prayer room. No Russian Orthodox priests are known to visit prisons, but state-approved imams do. “They call on prisoners to be calm and not to cause trouble, and praise the President”, a former prisoner of conscience stated. “No prisoner would reveal anything to them, just attend prayers”. Prisoners at Bayramaly (MR-K/16) strict regime labour camp state that the state-appointed imam is unable to answer questions about Islam. Some prisoners were sent to a punishment cell after the imam reported them for questioning his Islamic knowledge.

Other freedom of religion and belief violations include police in Dashoguz raiding two Protestant home meetings in February 2020, with the host being fined and threatened with having grandchildren taken away and other participants with being made unemployed. Another in Lebap Region was similarly fined for hosting a Christmas celebration. Also, officials in Lebap Region banned state employees from attending Friday prayers in mosques.

Human Rights Report 2019

In 2019, there were further reports that Turkmenistan had imprisoned a number of conscientious objectors to military service, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, with no alternative to military service available. The prison sentences are generally for 2 years. It continued to prove difficult to register, or re-register, a religious organisation in Turkmenistan.

APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019

Turkmenistan has a population of over 5 million people, around 85 per cent being ethnic Turkmens and 5 per cent ethnic Uzbeks (seen as of Muslim background), with the rest being made up of smaller percentages of Slavs (mainly Russians and Ukrainians, seen as of Christian background) and others.

Serious systemic violations of many human rights take place in the country. All exercise of freedom of religion or belief with others without state permission is illegal, as there is compulsory registration of all religious or belief groups and severe restrictions on their activity.

Muslims increasingly fear being branded “extremists” if they visibly fast or mark Ramadan. Turkmenistan has jailed numerous Muslims on vague “extremism” accusations, including punishing them for meetings to study their faith. One Muslim stopped going to mosque after police stopped him to ask, “Who is more important, Allah or the President?”

The regime has repeatedly jailed Muslims who meet together to study their faith. Prison administrations must regularly inform higher authorities, such as the Prosecutor’s Office and the Interior Ministry, of the number of jailed “adherents of banned religious organisations” (as all exercise of freedom of religion and belief by groups of people without state permission is banned, this category could be very wide). They must also inform authorities of the number alleged “Wahhabis”, “Jehovists”, and “Suleimanists” (an apparent reference to followers of Turkish-influenced Islam). Alleged “Wahhabis” include a large group of Hanafi Sunni Muslims who met in Turkmenabad in 2013 to study Islam and were subsequently arrested and jailed. It is unknown whether their leader Bahram Saparov and others from this group of prisoners of conscience are still alive.

Alleged “Suleimanists” include five Muslim prisoners of conscience who, in 2017, met in Balkan Region with others to pray and study their faith, using the works of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi and were jailed for 12 years each in labour camps. Four of the five are in the top-security prison at Ovadan-Depe, where prisoners have suffered torture and death.

Among other prisoners of conscience are Muslim prisoner Annamurad Atdaev, given a 15-year strict regime prison term in 2016; apparently for refusing to become an informer for the MSS secret police.

As of September 2019, seven Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors to compulsory military service are known to be currently serving labour camp terms of between one and four years. Four have been jailed in 2019. Three are currently serving one-year terms, three are serving two-year terms, and one (Bahtiyar Atahanov jailed on 5 July 2019) is serving a four year sentence.

Atahanov was forcibly conscripted first and so was punished as a soldier. In the latest known jailing, on 31 July, 20-year-old Jehovah’s Witness Azat Ashirov was jailed for two years. His offer to perform alternative civilian service – which Turkmenistan refuses to offer – was refused. Instead, he was prosecuted for refusal to serve in the armed forces “by means of inflicting injury to oneself, or by simulation of illness, by means of forgery of documents, or other fraudulent ways”.

In the UK Parliament, 2020

No questions asked.


USCIRF report 2020

US State Department International Religious Freedom report 2019



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