Recently, the State Department announced a potentially significant change in U.S. policy towards Turkmenistan when it was designated a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The move came as a surprise to many Central Asia hands who may have asked “why?”
Likely few Americans have heard of Turkmenistan. It is the most isolated of the former Soviet Union states. Its large territory is rich in natural gas but most of its five million people are poor. Turkmen are predominantly Sunni Muslim and millions of Turkmen live in neighboring Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. A few weeks ago, ISIS attacked a Shi’a Turkmen village in Iraq.
The country’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, oversaw one of the world’s most repressive states. Virtually no independent public activity was allowed. Turkmenistan’s public life was dominated by Niyazov’s quasi-religious personality cult, as set out in his book the Rukhnama. Late in Niyazov’s long quixotic reign the U.S. threat of CPC designation induced him to make some legal reforms, register several non-Muslim religious groups, and release conscientious objectors. But Turkmenistan was still far from fully respecting freedom of religion or belief and other human rights.
After Niyazov’s sudden death in late 2006, a brief springtime emerged when Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov assumed office. He proclaimed new human rights commitments and slightly relaxed surveillance. He also ordered the prison release of former Chief Mufti Ibadullah and registered more minority religious groups. Yet as Berdimuhamedov consolidated his position, highly repressive laws and pervasive information controls remained in force. He has also instituted his own personality cult, but without religious trappings.
Today, free and peaceful religious practice remains illegal. The 2003 religion law bans most religious activity. Intrusive registration criteria remain in effect for religious and other groups to gain legal status. The government must be informed of all foreign financial support; forbids and punishes worship in private homes; allows only clerics to wear religious garb in public and places severe and discriminatory restrictions on religious education. The government-appointed Council on Religious Affairs (CRA) supervises the hiring, promoting and firing of Muslim clergy, censoring religious publications, and monitoring all registered groups.
In January 2014, Turkmenistan’s government set tougher administrative code penalties, such as heavy fines, for most “illegal” religious activities. Moreover, police raids, prison terms, and forcible drug treatments reportedly continue to be meted out to those who engage in “illegal” religious activities. An official information blockade on religious and other political prisoners in Turkmenistan has inspired a new campaign, tellingly titled “Prove They are Alive.” Hope is fading for a dissent imam who had spent years in a psychiatric hospital. Thanks to the valuable work of Forum 18 News Service, we know that the government has resumed its policy of jailing conscientious objectors to military service (currently six Jehovah’s Witnesses) and one Protestant and one Jehovah’s Witness reportedly are imprisoned for their faith.
So this brings the conversation back to the designation of Turkmenistan as a “country of particular concern.” The State Department announced this action in late July 2014 when releasing its annual report on international religious freedom. The State Department cited “concerns about the detention and imprisonment of religious minorities, the rights of religious groups to register, the lack of public access to registration procedures, and restrictions on importing religious literature.” This was an action the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where we work, has advocated since 2000. Turkmenistan joins another Central Asian state, Uzbekistan, on the CPC list, along with Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
The question now arises: what specific steps can the U.S. government urge that could lead to Turkmenistan’s removal from the CPC list?
In 2004, the threat of CPC designation led Ashgabat to undertake certain reforms. But these minor reforms did not last, leading the State Department to add Turkmenistan to the CPC list almost a decade later.
To move Turkmenistan concretely forward on these issues, a framework on religious freedom and related human rights is needed to encourage lasting reforms. CPC designation empowers the U.S. government to negotiate reform commitments to improve religious freedom, while establishing a pathway to eventually delist Turkmenistan. Such a binding agreement to support specific and meaningful reforms is authorized under section 405(c) of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Benchmarks should include major legal reform, an end to police raids, prisoner releases, and greater international access to coreligionists.
Turkmenistan’s CPC designation was the right call by the State Department. This decision should mark the start of a structured bilateral engagement to encourage Turkmenistan to take specific, meaningful and lasting steps so that all of Turkmenistan’s citizens can fully enjoy freedom of religion or belief. A robust engagement is needed to keep this window of opportunity open and to see concrete improvements.
Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Cathy Cosman is a Senior Policy Analyst at USCIRF following Eurasia. The views expressed here are their own. Knox Thames can be followed on Twitter @thames22.