LONDON (BP)–Turkmenistan’s most prominent religious prisoner, Baptist leader Shageldy Atakov, has been freed before the end of his four-year sentence, Keston News Service reported Jan. 10.
The U.S.-based Russian Evangelistic Ministries and the German-based Friedensstimme Mission, which maintain close ties with Baptists in the former Soviet republics, have both confirmed that Atakov was released from prison in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) on Jan. 8 and has now been reunited with his wife Artygul and five children in the town of Kaakhka close to Turkmenistan’s southern border with Iran.
“Jesus has given me a Christmas gift,” Atakov was quoted as saying (many Christians in the region celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7).
However, many Baptists remain skeptical about the terms of the release. “There is unease because of the abnormal nature of the release,” a spokesman for Russian Evangelistic Ministries told Keston, pointing out that Atakov was given no release certificate and has not yet recovered his identity papers. Prison officials told Atakov these would be delivered to him at his home within 10 days. The Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, the umbrella organization within the former Soviet republics representing Atakov’s congregation, has not issued a statement about the release, apparently because of the unclarified terms of the release.
Some local Baptists believe Atakov was freed now to forestall any major gatherings by fellow Baptists on his due release date next May, when his sentence expires.
The 39-year-old Atakov, a convert to Christianity, was sentenced on charges of swindling and forging documents which church members insist were instigated to obstruct his church activities. He was arrested on Dec. 18, 1998, in Turkmenbashi, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and fined on March 19, 1999, but was retried on Aug. 4-5, 1999, in the Turkmen capital Ashgabad and given the increased sentence.
Atakov’s imprisonment has led to unprecedented pressure on Turkmen authorities, Keston reported. The labor camps and prisons where he was held received vast numbers of letters from supporters around the world, very few of which were handed to him, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and foreign governments put pressure on the authorities to free him. Last May, in a deal brokered by U.S. diplomats, Atakov was brought to Ashgabad, where he met the head of the political police, the KNB (former KGB), and was pressured to emigrate with his family in return for his freedom. Atakov declined the offer and was returned to prison.
During his imprisonment, Atakov was forcibly treated with psychotropic drugs and his health was reported a year ago to be very poor. However, those who have spoken to him since his release say he is “doing well spiritually and physically.”
Despite Atakov’s release, the Turkmen authorities have continued their pressure on Baptist congregations, all of whose activity the government regards as illegal.
Turkmenistan has the harshest religious policy of all the former Soviet republics. Only state-approved mosques and congregations of the Russian Orthodox Church have official registration. The government treats all other religious communities as illegal, including all Protestant Christians, the Armenian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Hare Krishna community and the Baha’is. Believers of unregistered faiths have been beaten, fined, imprisoned and deported, and their places of worship have been confiscated and, in several cases, demolished. Private homes used for unsanctioned religious meetings also have been confiscated.
In specific instances involving Baptists:
— Local Baptists report that all those who attended a religious service in a private home in the town of Khazar (formerly Cheleken) which was raided on Dec. 16 were summoned to appear before an administrative commission at the local administration on Jan. 9. It is not yet known whether they were fined, or whether the threat to confiscate the home of the host, Mariya Zadorozhnaya, has yet been carried out.
— The Baptist church in the town of Balkanabad (formerly Nebit-Dag) was raided at the end of the Sunday service on Dec. 23. Passport details for all those present were recorded and five young men were taken for interrogation at the KNB. An officer of the KNB’s religious department, Kadyr Yazgendiyev, hit three of the Baptists, Dovran Akmuradov, Vitali Konovalov and Maksim Grishin, on the head. All five Baptists were ordered to write statements about their participation in the church and were told they would be summoned again. Officials said that because their church is not registered they are not allowed to meet.
— Local Baptists also are concerned by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death on Dec. 22 of Mikhail Kozlov, a leading figure in the Ashgabad Baptist congregation. Kozlov was driving alone from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabad on Dec. 21 when he went off the road. He was taken unconscious to hospital where he failed to regain consciousness and died the following day. Baptists report that Kozlov, a keen sportsman, had several times escaped apparent KNB attempts to kill him. His funeral in Ashgabad on Dec. 28 attracted many Baptists from across Turkmenistan and Russia and was not disturbed by the KNB.
Source: Keston Institute, http://www.keston.org. Corley is a writer with the Keston News Service.