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Congressman decries torture of Baptist minister in Turkmenistan

WASHINGTON (BP)–U.S. Rep. Christopher H. Smith has decried the treatment of a Baptist minister in Turkmenistan who reportedly is being tortured in prison.

“It sickens me to learn of the persecution of Baptist minister Shagildy Atakov, who, we believe, is being held prisoner and tortured because of his faith,” Smith said in a prepared statement received by Baptist Press Feb. 19. “According to the most recent information we have, Atakov told his wife he does not expect to survive his mistreatment.”

Smith, R.-N.J., is chairman of the International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee. He also is the U.S. co-chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, which monitors compliance with agreements by European countries in areas such as human rights, humanitarian concerns, military security and the environment. It also seeks to resolve conflict among participating countries.

“I urge the international diplomatic community to join me in calling for [Atakov’s] immediate release,” Smith stated. “And I pray that Turkmenistan’s president, Saparmurat Niyazov, will release Reverend Atakov immediately and unconditionally.”

According to information released by Smith, Atakov was arrested on Dec. 18, 1998, at his home in Turkmenbashi and charged with “fraud.” On March 19, 1999, Atakov was fined $12,000 and sentenced to two years in prison. The average monthly wage in Turkmenistan is about $30.

Despite his conviction for an allegedly criminal offense, government officials have reportedly pressured Atakov and his family members to renounce their religious faith, Smith’s statement recounted, noting that the Baptist minister has been subjected to brutal beatings and torture by prison officials.

After Atakov’s second trial, set for July 21, 1999, was postponed because he had been too weakened by severe beatings, prosecutors increased his prison sentence by an additional two years and raised his fine by another $12,000, Smith’s statement continued. In November 1999, Atakov was sent to a punishment cell for 15 days at Seydy labor camp. In March 2000, he was sent to a punishment cell for one month. Atakov suffered symptoms of a heart attack last December, after which he was again sent to a punishment cell and severely beaten. The minister was reportedly so severely beaten during one round of torture that he was temporarily blinded.

Today, Atakov’s life is in severe danger, Smith noted, citing reports indicating that he told his wife on a recent visit that he does not expect to survive his abuse.

Amnesty International also has issued an urgent alert, urging Atakov’s release.

In numerous letters to President Niyazov, Smith has urged Atakov’s release. Smith noted that Turkmenistan’s government routinely responds that the minister committed “defrauding actions toward the citizens of Turkmenistan and The Russian Federation by illegally possessing their properties and money” and that his “conviction … has nothing to [do] with his religious beliefs.”

However, Turkmenistan is the most repressive country in the former USSR, Smith stated. Under President Niyazov’s iron-handed rule, Turkmenistan, as an OSCE participating state since 1992, remains a one-party police state that observes no human rights commitments. In the last few years, the government has noticeably stepped up harassment of religious communities and persecution of believers. In November 1999, authorities demolished a Seventh-day Adventist Church in the capital city, Ashgabat, after having destroyed a Hare Krishna temple. In January, two political prisoners were amnestied, after recanting on television and praising President Niyazov.

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