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Former Chief Mufti released, but Baptist prisoner of conscience still in jail in Turkmenistan

By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
TURKMENISTAN (ANS) — Relatives and friends of Turkmenistan’s former Chief Mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, as well as local people in his northern home region and visitors from neighboring Uzbekistan have held a traditional Turkmen “sadaka” (thanksgiving feast) to celebrate his release from prison.
“Very, very many people came,” exiled Turkmen human rights activist Farid Tukhbatullin of the the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights told a Western news agency. “Everyone is delighted.”

However, the other known religious prisoner, Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky, has not been released. The family confirmed to August 20 that he is still being held in a labor camp with harsh conditions, and insist that he is being punished for his activity with his unregistered Baptist congregation.

Several Jehovah’s Witnesses have recently been given suspended jail sentences for refusing military service on religious grounds. Since Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became President in early 2007, raids, fines, public threats, imprisonment and other violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief have significantly increased.

Geraldine Fagan, writing for Forum 18 News Service ( says Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky, has not been released. The 49-year-old Ukrainian citizen was transferred to a labor camp with harsh conditions in late June.

His family confirmed to Forum 18 on August 13 that Kalataevsky is still being held in this camp. The Baptist leader from Turkmenbashi [Türkmenbashy], was handed down a three-year term on May 14, 2007 for illegally crossing the border six years earlier. His family has insisted that the sentence was imposed to punish him for his activity with the unregistered Baptist congregation in the city. They point out that this was the subject of police interrogation when he was arrested this March, and not crossing the border.

A fellow Baptist pastor arrested with Kalataevsky, Russian citizen Yevgeny Potolov was expelled from Turkmenistan in early July. Several Jehovah’s Witnesses were recently handed down suspended sentences for refusing military service on religious, Forum 18 states in a news update.

Since Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became acting President in early 2007, raids, fines, public threats, imprisonment and other violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief have significantly increased.

Three years into a 22-year sentence, the former Chief Mufti of Turkmenistan was freed from prison as part of a Presidential Amnesty. He is among eleven prisoners named in an undated decree of clemency signed by President Berdymukhammedov. The text of the decree was made public on August 10.

Farid Tukhbatullin, who heads the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, pointed out that Nasrullah is the only one of the 11 released prisoners to enjoy public influence, “not only as a religious leader, but in general.” While he was unsure about the reason for the timing of the amnesty, he suggested that representatives of Muslim countries may have put pressure on Berdymukhammedov during his recent hajj (pilgrimage) to Saudia Arabia.

Tukhbatullin also thought it likely that Nasrullah will be under some sort of traveling restrictions and barred from speaking to diplomats or other official representatives, at least for a few months. While prison will inevitably have undermined the former Chief Mufti’s health, the exiled human rights activist added, he “didn’t look bad” in his state television appearance.

Nasrullah’s relatives were informed of his imminent release on August 9,the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights website reported. That afternoon, “the convicts were brought to the Interior Ministry where the decree was read out to them in the presence of their relatives,” according to Russian news agency Interfax. Tukhbatullin confirmed reports that the eleven prisoners appeared on state television thanking the president for their release and promising to work for the good of the nation.

On August 10 the pro-government website cited the presidential press service as stating that Berdymukhammedov had issued the amnesty “taking into consideration numerous communications from citizens to the Turkmen Presidential State Commission for Consideration of Citizens’ Communications Regarding the Activity of the Law Enforcement Agencies.” The president’s decision is reportedly also intended “to continue to strengthen the unity and cohesion of Turkmen society and accord and well-being in every family.”

The Commission was set up on February 19, 2007, shortly after President Berdymukhammedov was sworn into office. Nothing certain is known about its composition, functions or powers. According to Farid Tukhbatullin, the former Chief Mufti’s relatives persistently petitioned the Commission for his release as soon as it was created.

The 59-year-old Nasrullah is from Turkmenistan ‘s ethnic Uzbek minority. He received his theological education during the Soviet period at the Mir Arab madrassah in Bukhara [Bukhoro] ( Uzbekistan ), Syria and Egypt . One of the most authoritative and influential Muslim theologians of Central Asia,Muhamad Sadyk Muhamad Yusuf has told Forum 18 that when the pair studied together in Bukhara, Nasrullah “never participated in conversations in which there was even the slightest criticism of the authorities.” The former Chief Mufti of Uzbekistan also described him as “a very cautious man who keeps away from politics.”

Becoming Chief Mufti in the wake of Turkmen independence in 1991, Nasrullah remained loyal to then President Saparmurat Niyazov. In January 2003, however, he was retired by President Niyazov without explanation. In March 2004 he was sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment following a closed two-day trial at Azatlyk District Court in Ashgabad. Prosecutors alleged that Nasrullah was involved in an assassination attempt on President Niyazov in November 2002. Reliable sources in Turkmenistan have told Forum 18 they believe the former Chief Mufti was actually sentenced for his growing opposition to the then president’s tight control over the Muslim community. In particular, he reportedly tried to obstruct as far as possible the use in mosques of Niyazov’s moral code Ruhnama (Book of the Soul), which imams are forced to display prominently in mosques and quote approvingly in sermons.

The government has repeatedly refused to give any details about the crimes Nasrullah is supposed to have committed and the articles of the Criminal Code under which he was sentenced, or to release the text of the verdict. No official has been prepared to discuss with Forum 18 either Nasrullah’s case or those of others held for their religious beliefs. Reached on July 4, Murat Karriyev, the Deputy Head of the government’s Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs and reputedly its most important official, refused to enter any discussion.

No verified news about Nasrullah was available during his imprisonment. The first five years of his sentence were to be served in a high security prison, and he was reportedly severely beaten in May 2004 at a prison in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi [Türkmenbashy] (formerly Krasnovodsk).

Earlier this year members of Nasrullah’s extended family said that they were becoming increasingly concerned for his welfare. “We have never once been allowed a meeting, never once have they accepted parcels for him, and we don’t even know where he is being held,” one relative complained.