The government continued to enforce military service requirements on conscientious objectors and the UN Human Rights Commission found the country had subjected a conscientious objector to inhuman and degrading treatment in prison. The government continued its monitoring of Islamic groups it considered either “Wahhabist” or “extremist.” Government authorities at times broke up meetings of registered and unregistered religious groups.
According to the nongovernmental organization Forum 18, authorities detained and beat four Jehovah’s Witnesses in February. One prisoner reportedly lost consciousness three times during the beatings. According to Forum 18, the Turkmenabad City Court convicted them all for minor hooliganism and sentenced three to 15 days detention. The fourth received a fine on account of his advanced age.
Also in February prison officials reportedly severely beat Muslim prisoners convicted of “Wahhabism.” In March Jehovah’s Witness Serdar Hemdemov was arrested for disorderly conduct and beaten during a 15-day administrative detention, according to religious groups and human rights organizations. In May the Lebap regional court sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Bahram Hemdemov (Serdar’s father) to four years’ imprisonment for inciting religious hatred after police raided his home in March, where 38 fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses had gathered for worship. Police subjected the elder Hemdemov to multiple beatings and confiscated all religious literature and his personal vehicle. According to Forum 18, in March Jehovah’s Witness Dovlet Kandymov was detained and was repeatedly beaten to force him to testify against Bahram Hemdemov. Also in March Jehovah’s Witness Emirjan Jumanazarov was reportedly beaten and kicked after his arrest.
Forum 18 reported that in May police arrested Jehovah’s Witness Konstantin Vlaskin and confiscated his religious literature and computer.
Jehovah’s Witnesses continued frequently to refuse compulsory military service. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow pardoned one 21-year-old imprisoned Jehovah’s Witness in February. One Jehovah’s Witness remained in prison at year’s end, and one remained indefinitely detained without trial, presumably in a military hospital according to Forum 18.
In March the UN Human Rights Committee ruled Turkmenistan violated its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with regard to inhuman and degrading treatment and imprisonment of a conscientious objector to compulsory military service. Zafar Abdullayev first refused military service in 2005 and courts twice convicted him for that refusal.
Authorities fined individuals and religious groups for unauthorized religious practices. For instance, Forum 18 reported that on March 14, police in Turkmenabad raided the Hemdemov family home, where 38 Jehovah's Witnesses had gathered for worship. The police confiscated all religious literature they could find and detained the entire group. Eight received 15-day sentences, and 30 were fined an undisclosed amount.
Forum 18 reported that the government categorized some Muslim groups advocating theologically different but nonviolent interpretations of Islamic religious doctrine as “extremist” and continued to arrest members of such groups.
Although the government did not officially restrict persons from changing their religious beliefs and affiliations, representatives of religious minorities stated that ethnic Turkmen converts from Islam or members of unregistered religious groups were subjected to more scrutiny and questioning in interactions with representatives of the government than were ethnic non-Turkmen.
The government registered no new religious groups during the year. Information on the number of groups that applied for registration was unavailable. The Ministry of Justice reported it only denied registration in the event of an incomplete application or if the group constituted a threat to the security of the country, but did not report how it made that determination. Several religious members, however, reported the registration process was unclear and they were unable to obtain assistance from the SCROEERIR, which they said is supposed to assist in the process. According to government figures, there were 121 registered religious organizations and seven registered religious groups operating in the country. Of these, 104 were Muslim, of which 99 were Sunni and five Shia; 13 were Russian Orthodox; and 11 represented other religious groups, including Roman Catholics, Bahais, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishnas), and Protestants.
Reportedly government officials unevenly enforced the prohibition of harassment of organized religious groups by private citizens, allowing private citizens to interfere, for instance, with small-scale religious meetings held in public places. Observers reported no protection from harassment extended to unregistered religious groups. Registered religious groups said they frequently did not report harassment for fear such reporting would prompt authorities to increase harassment or monitoring of their activities.
There were no reports of officials being fined for abusing religious freedom.
Authorities reportedly required some registered Christian religious groups to obtain approval to carry out religious activities, such as weekly services, and otherwise reportedly made it difficult for registered groups to find appropriate facilities for meeting.
Some registered Christian religious groups reported they were denied permission to conduct church meetings such as study groups and seminars, although they were able to hold weekly services.
The government continued to forbid unregistered religious groups or unregistered branches of registered religious groups gatherings in public or private and sometimes broke up such gatherings, including those of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some unregistered congregations reportedly continued to practice quietly, mostly in private homes, and were able to continue as long as the neighbors did not file complaints with local authorities.
Although it remained illegal to proselytize, some registered groups such as the Bahai community reported freedom to share their faith in public without harassment.
Religious groups rarely if ever received permission to import religious literature. The government reportedly continued to prohibit all religious groups from subscribing to any foreign religious publications. The Quran was practically unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat but most homes retained one copy in Arabic or in Russian translation from the Soviet era. Few translations were available in the Turkmen language. During the year, some citizens reported the seizure of personal Bibles at the airport upon arrival from foreign travel, even though the Bibles had been in their possession when they departed the country.
In February, according to Forum 18, Turkmenabad police conducted a search without a warrant of Jehovah’s Witness Zeynep Husaynova’s home and confiscated religious literature.
Religious groups continued to report government and state-affiliated enterprise interference in purchasing or obtaining long-term leases for land or buildings for worship or meetings. Registered religious groups also continued to report difficulty in renting special event space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, possibly due to concern about government disapproval.
Authorities enforced the ban on unregistered groups providing religious education.
Officers in the Ministry of National Security and Ministry of Internal Affairs in divisions charged with fighting organized crime and terrorism monitored members of religious minorities, including Christian groups, reportedly through telephone and undercover surveillance.
The government approved the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics. Some Muslims expressed concern about the quality of training and changes of appointed Muslim leaders. The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups were financed independently, and the government was not involved with the appointment of their leadership.
The government stated it would not engage in a direct dialogue with minority religious groups regarding alternatives to military service for conscientious objectors or other objections to treatment of minority religious groups by the government, despite a 2014 statement that it was willing to discuss civilian service alternatives to military service with a legal expert, to meet with representatives of registered religious groups, to publish information on registration procedures, and to participate in training on international religious freedom.
The government denied visas to foreigners suspected of conducting or intending to conduct missionary activity. Some religious groups seeking religious visitor visas for foreign religious speakers reported that when granted, such visas were often for very short durations and required burdensome paperwork. Others were unable to obtain visas for foreign religious representatives. In November the government reported it had approved four visits by foreign members of religious congregations, including Protestants, Seventh-day Adventists, Hare Krishnas, and members of the Russian Orthodox Church. The government did not report the number of visa applications of foreign religious visitors denied.
In October the government sponsored Hajj travel for 188 pilgrims. As was the case in previous years, self-funded pilgrims were reportedly allowed to make their own arrangements to participate in the Hajj. In October the government reported that there were no restrictions concerning who could participate in the Hajj.
Members of the theology faculty in the history department at Turkmen State University in Ashgabat were the only university-level faculty members allowed to provide Islamic higher education. Reports indicated the Ministry of National Security vetted potential student candidates for admission to this program. There was no possibility of studying theology subjects other than the state-approved Islamic theology. Women remained banned from the program.
The government established a website with information on registration procedures, and government officials participated in religious freedom training conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
In August government officials participated in a religious freedom study tour in the United States conducted by the OSCE.