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Religious Groups in Turkmenistan Still Face Diffic

Religious Groups in Turkmenistan Still Face Difficulties, UN Rights Expert Says

Religious communities and individuals in Turkmenistan continue to face difficulties in practising their faiths, even though the Central Asian country has made clear progress since last year, an independent United Nations human rights expert said today.

Wrapping up a week-long visit to Turkmenistan, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, issued a statement noting that the Government has undertaken a series of initiatives to set up mechanisms to deal with human rights issues.

But she voiced concern at the contents of a 2003 law that prohibits any activities by unregistered religious organizations, even if the criminal penalties for such activities have been removed subsequently.

“Members of unregistered groups, especially those living outside of Ashgabat [the capital], are often not permitted to congregate, are unable to find facilities for meetings, and collective observance may be liable to punishment,” Ms. Jahangir said.

“I would like to emphasize that international human rights law guarantees freedom of religion or belief, regardless of registration status. Those who cannot or do not register should still be able to manifest their religion or belief, both individually and collectively.”

Ms. Jahangir stressed that several provisions of the amended 2003 law have not yet been made compatible with international human rights standards.

“Vague provisions are susceptible to arbitrary interpretation or misuse by the law enforcement agencies and local administration,” she noted, adding that States should play “a delicate role” in matters of religion or belief so as to build a tolerant and diverse society.

The Special Rapporteur called for the Presidential Council for Religious Affairs, which oversees the activities of religious organizations and represents their interests in State authorities, to widen the background of its membership and to become autonomous.

“I have noticed that the Council… seems to be composed of Sunni Muslims, Russian Orthodox and Government representatives. I would like to emphasize that an inclusive body would inspire the confidence of all religious communities in Turkmenistan.”

She also expressed concern that conscientious objection is a criminal offence and that no alternative civilian service to the military is given, even though the right of conscientious objection can be derived from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

But Ms. Jahangir praised the Turkmen Government for its cooperation during her trip, in which she visited Ashgabat and the cities of Dashoguz, Turkmenbashy and Balkanabat and held talks with senior officials, including President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. She also held talks with religious groups, both registered and unregistered.

“I was told by virtually all of my interlocutors that the situation has improved since 2007,” she said, noting that her office has over the years received allegations of serious violations of freedom of religion or belief in Turkmenistan.

Special Rapporteurs such as Ms. Jahangir serve in an independent and unpaid capacity and report to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council. Her full report on this visit is expected to be presented to the Council next March.


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