Statement to the House Subcommittee for Africa, Global
Human Rights, and International Operations
Regarding the Department of State's 2005 International
Religious Freedom Report conclusions on Turkmenistan
November 15, 2005
Dear Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee,
As a coalition of non-governmental organizations, we
welcome today's hearing as an important opportunity
to share with you some concerns about the treatment
of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the U.S. Department
of State's Report on the state of religious freedoms.
The Report documents in admirable detail the extreme
and persistent violations of freedom of religion or
belief by the governments of these two Central Asian
nations. However, the assertion that Turkmenistan and
Uzbekistan are not "countries of particular concern"
(CPC) under the statute - and indeed that Turkmenistan
has demonstrated "significant improvements in the
promotion of religious freedom" (Executive Summary,
Part II) this year - is inconsistent with the Report's
own findings and is therefore unjustified.
As you know, (Sec. 402 (b) 1 (A)) of the International
Religious Freedom Act requires that a government that
has "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe
violations of religious freedom in that country during
the preceding 12 months" be designated as a "country
of particular concern." It must be emphasized that
the President is legally required to make such designation.
Yet, given the overwhelming evidence of severe and widespread
violations of religious freedom in Turkmenistan and
Uzbekistan during the period under consideration, the
conclusion that these governments have not "engaged
in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious
freedom" is factually incorrect, and therefore
in violation of the statute.
We strongly support the November 10 statement by the
chairman of the US Commission for International Religious
Freedom (USCIRF), Michael Cromartie, that "The
omission of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan from the CPC
list is particularly troubling and a discredit to Congress's
intent in passing the International Religious Freedom
In the face of the severe religious
freedom violations perpetrated by the Turkmen and Uzbek
governments, the continued failure to name them as CPCs
undermines the spirit and letter of IRFA."
The Department of State's conclusion that Turkmenistan
is not a "country of particular concern" is
erroneous in three ways. It is based on 1. contradictions
between evidence and interpretation; 2. evidence of
progress that is inadmissible for the period under consideration;
and 3. omissions of some serious violations of religious
freedom that would mitigate against recognition of "significant
improvements in the promotion of religious freedom."
1. Contradictions between evidence of abuse and their
interpretation as such
a. In his November 8 comments, Ambassador John V. Hanford
III stated that "last year" the government
of Turkmenistan had released "all religious prisoners."
Yet the State Department Report notes that Turkmenistan's
former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah is currently
serving a twenty-two-year prison sentence on charges
that have never been made public. If Mr. ibn Ibadullah
is not a religious prisoner, why is he in the Report?
b. In the section on "Legal/Policy Framework"
the Report asserts that the Turkmen government's Council
for Religious Affairs "acts as an arm of the state,
exercising direct control over the hiring, promotion,
and firing of both Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox
clergy, as well as helping to control all religious
publications and activities. Its writ is enforced through
security forces." Yet under "Improvements
and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom,"
it asserts that "Unlike previous reporting periods,
Russian Orthodox Christians did not report any abuses
and were not prevented from practicing their faith."
2. Inadmissible evidence
a. One of the three examples offered as justification
for designating the government of Turkmenistan as a
government that has demonstrated "significant improvements
in the promotion of religious freedom" took place
outside of the period under consideration (July 1, 2004-June
30, 2005). The Report notes that "the President
signed a decree pledging to register all religious groups,
regardless of creed or number, and to adhere to generally
accepted international norms and rules concerning treatment
of religious minorities." However, as the Report
itself notes, this decree was adopted in March 2004.
It therefore cannot be considered as evidence of progress
during the period under consideration.
a. The Report does not mention the fact that the government
of Turkmenistan has failed to respond to repeated requests
(in 2003 and 2005) by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom
of Religion or Belief for an invitation to Turkmenistan.
This egregious failure to respond can only be interpreted
as deliberate resistance to scrutiny of its own practices
regarding religious freedoms.
b. In his comments on November 8, Ambassador Hanford
stressed the importance of the progress that had been
made on the issue of registration, citing "the
streamlining of registration procedures and the registration
of a number of new religious groups." While registration
is in principle an indication of progress, in the case
of Turkmenistan it has proven a false yardstick for
improvement. The acquisition of registration did not
stop law-enforcement officials from continuing terrorizing
raids and other forms of intimidation and harassment
against several newly registered religious groups during
the period in question. In practice, the government
clearly views registration as largely irrelevant to
its policy of control. Indeed, the UN Committee on the
Elimination of Racial Discrimination implicitly noted
the insufficiency of registration when it demanded in
its Concluding Observations of August 2005 that Turkmenistan
"respect the right of registered and unregistered
religions to freely exercise their freedom of religion."
Lauding the government of Turkmenistan's progress on
registering religious groups without at the same time
noting that registration has in some cases been ineffective
in protecting religious freedoms is therefore a false
criterion of genuine progress in this area.
c. The Report does not note or challenge the fact that
the government of Turkmenistan bans the publishing and
importing of religious literature, or that it imposes
arbitrary "fines" on believers - both of which
are extreme forms of restriction of the right to freedom
The refusal to designate Uzbekistan as a "country
of particular concern" ignores the persistent and
worsening persecution of members of all religious minorities,
whether they belong to registered or unregistered congregations,
as well as the brutal mistreatment of Muslims suspected
of affiliating with non state-controlled teachers or
Unfortunately, by failing to designate Turkmenistan
and Uzbekistan "countries of particular concern"
and by praising the government of Turkmenistan for its
"significant improvements in the promotion of religious
freedom," this year's Annual Report on International
Religious Freedom does a disservice to the US government's
policy of upholding religious freedoms worldwide. It
also, unfortunately, undermines the State Department
and US Embassy in Ashgabat's enormous efforts to secure
reforms in this area as well as its successful provision
of protection for individual believers who have been
persecuted by the government.
We also share a concern held by some of those who testify
before you today that by failing to designate Turkmenistan
and Uzbekistan as "countr[ies] of particular concern"
the Report is not only in violation of its statutory
obligation to "determine whether" a government
"has engaged in or tolerated particularly severe
violations of religious freedom in that country."
It also sends a signal to the people of these predominantly
Muslim nations that is likely to be misinterpreted as
evidence that the US government knows about the ongoing
abuse, but is not willing to take commensurate action
to stop it.
We look forward to your comments, and thank you for
your attention to these concerns.
Galkan Human Rights Organization
Institute for War and Peace Reporting
International Crisis Group
International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights
International League for Human Rights
Lawrence Uzzell (private individual)
Open Society Institute
Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights