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Former prisoner in Turkmenistan now under daily police watch

LONDON (BP)–Freed religious prisoner Shageldy Atakov has been warned not to associate with his fellow Baptists and remains under close surveillance by the country’s political police, the KNB (former KGB), Keston News Service has learned.

“Surveillance has been set up around the Atakovs’ home,” a Jan. 25 statement from local Baptists declared. “Each day an officer makes a visit allegedly to ‘wish him well,’ offering that if there are any problems he should ask for help.”

The 39-year-old Atakov, a convert to Christianity and the most prominent religious prisoner in Turkmenistan, was freed Jan. 8 from prison in the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi. Although he was given his identity documents soon after his release, he is still awaiting a certificate of release from prison.

Atakov was sentenced to four years on charges of swindling and forging documents — charges 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. His sentence would have been completed in May.

Two KNB officers from Ashgabad visited Atakov at home in the village of Kaakhka in southern Turkmenistan on Jan. 21, according to the statement, which was passed to Keston by the German-based Friedensstimme Mission.

The KNB officers, Iskander Kurbanov and Kurban (last name unknown), stayed for about an hour. “They said that he should not meet with his fellow believers, tried in all possible ways to find out the number of Baptist believers in Turkmenistan, asked him to let them know about visits by foreign citizens and inquired about what he would say and how he would conduct himself with them,” local Baptists reported. “Shageldy replied that he knows himself what to say to whom.”

The KNB officers also tried to find out what Atakov’s plans were now he has been freed from prison. He responded that his first priority was his health. “They offered [Atakov] help with medical treatment and other services. Shageldy refused point-blank.”

“When Shageldy asked why he has still not been given the release certificate,” local Baptists reported in the statement, “one of the KNB officers responded that the documents are being held up in the prison where Shageldy had been held until recently.”

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, according to Keston reports, and private homes used for unsanctioned religious meetings also have been confiscated.
Source: Keston Institute, http://www.keston.org. Corley is a writer with the Keston News Service.

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  • Felix Corley