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Experts: Religious Persecution Rife in Turkmenistan

(Washington, DC -- May 20, 2004) Three scholars on Turkmenistan told a recent RFE/RL briefing audience that human rights violations by the Turkmen government, particularly violations of religious freedom, have reached a dangerous level and the government should be penalized under U.S. law. "If Turkmenistan is not designated as a 'Country of Particular Concern' (CPC) by the United States government, the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act should be repealed," said Lawrence Uzzell, president of International Freedom Watch.

Uzzell and his fellow panelists, George Washington University research associate Najia Badykova, and Forum 18 News Service editor Felix Corley, discussed the state of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, which they agreed is becoming increasingly bleak under Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Corley said that religious communities were having difficulty learning the requirements for government registration and had no access to legal places to assemble for worship. The Niyazov government, Corley said, denies the legitimacy of many religious groups. Corley noted a decision by a congregation of the New Apostolic Church to heed a warning from the Niyazov government not to worship in Turkmenistan as another example of official intimidation.

Uzzell noted that President Niyazov's book, "Ruhnama" (Book of the Soul), is treated in Turkmenistan as a sacred work on a par with the Koran. In fact, Uzzell said, it constitutes an "intellectual and cultural tragedy" for the people there, as Niyazov has made the book a mandatory focus of learning in schools -- taking time and resources away from the teaching of basic subjects such as math and science. Uzzell pointed out that, if Turkmenistan was added to the CPC list, it would mark the first time a country cooperating in the war on terrorism was included on the CPC list -- as opposed to current designees China, North Korea, Sudan, and Burma.

Badykova cautioned that it would be dangerous for the U.S. to ignore Turkmenistan. By limiting foreign media and outside contacts, she said, the Niyazov government has isolated its people. No economic reforms have been implemented since a launch announcement in 1996, Badykova said. As a result, Turkmenistan's economy remains narrowly based on natural gas sales, while entire sectors are left to deteriorate such as the health care and educational systems. She said that university degrees granted by foreign institutions have even been "cancelled" in recent years, leaving many skilled professionals without the right to work. Badykova suggested that the designation of CPC status could serve as "small, but powerful leverage" in encouraging Turkmenistan to promote reform in all sectors, starting with religious freedom.

The briefing was co-sponsored by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal government commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to monitor religious freedom in other countries and advise the US government on how best to promote it.

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