Turkmenistan Continues to Violate the Right of its Citizens to Freedom of Religion

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its 2024 Annual Report put Turkmenistan among the 17 Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) given that the government of Turkmenistan continues to ‘engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. In 1998, the US Congress adopted the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) which mandates that U.S. policy includes condemning violations of religious freedom abroad and assisting foreign governments to protect this fundamental human right.

In 2023 authorities in Turkmenistan continued to target devout, peaceful Muslims as “extremist” due to their appearance, possessing unauthorized religious materials or following religious practice. Police and officials from the Ministry of National Security detained and interrogated Muslim women attending mosques or wearing hijab and men with beards forcing them to shave. Such instances occurred across Turkmenistan. For example, in Dashoguz police detained men with beards and forced them to shave at police stations, and in Turkmenbashi city police raided Muslim homes, seizing religious literature.

According to USCIRF there are at least nine Turkmen citizens serving between 12 and 15 years in prison under unsubstantiated national security pretenses for engaging in peaceful religious activities.

Turkmenistan also engaged in transnational repression of its Muslim citizens living abroad forcibly returning them home. For example, despite the 2017 European Court of Human Rights decision to suspend his extradition, Russian authorities deported Turkmen Muslim Ashyrbay Bekiev to Turkmenistan. He was accused of promoting Islamic extremism to other Turkmen citizens in Russia and sentenced to 23 years in prison. Prisoners of conscience are often forcibly disappeared in the state’s prison system and subjected to harsh living conditions, including starvation and torture. At least 2 people were believed to be tortured in Turkmenistan, and 31 people imprisoned for their religious beliefs. Of this, 21 were released while 10 are still in prison. In the past the government has also punished conscientious objectors such as Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to serve in the army while failing to provide an alternative civilian service.

While the 2016 religion law established Turkmenistan as a secular state and guaranteed the right to freedom of religion, it also provides the legal basis for the government to systematically restrict religious activities. Only registered religious organizations are legally allowed to practice while registering a religious organization remains extremely difficult. The appointment of religious leaders, building houses of worship or distributing religious literature must be approved by relevant authorities. At the same time, recognized religious communities must re-register every three years. They are prohibited from receiving foreign funding, conducting private religious education and practice, and wearing religious garb unless it is a government-approved clergy.

Although it is legislatively mandated that the US State Department impose sanctions on countries of particular concern, it maintains a waiver on imposing any related sanctions on Turkmenistan. USCIRF has made several recommendations to the US government including removing this waiver:

  • lift the waiver to impose targeted sanctions on Turkmenistan government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States;
  • limit security assistance to Turkmenistan under IRFA Section 405(a)(22) to hold the government of Turkmenistan accountable for its particularly severe violations of religious freedom;
  • encourage Turkmen authorities to extend an official invitation for an unrestricted visit by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief;
  • raise religious freedom and other human rights concerns with Turkmen counterparts, including at C5+1 meetings, and urge the government of Turkmenistan to provide an acceptable civilian alternative to military service.

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