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Leading International NGOs Address U.S. Congress Regarding Religious Freedom In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan


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 and Uzbekistan


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 Act (IRFA)… 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."


Turkmenistan

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.

3. Omissions

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 of religion.


Uzbekistan


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 prayer groups.

Conclusion

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
Global Witness
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

 




 


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