01/28/2017, 14.20
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Government repression against freedom of thought and religion continues in Turkmenistan

Despite denials by the authorities, hard labour and torture are used against religious scholars and communities. At least two Muslim prisoners died in top-security Ovada-Depe prison in the second half of 2016. Lukman Yaylanov died in summer 2016, possibly as a result of torture, and Narkuly Baltayev several months later.

Ashgabat (AsiaNews) – Repression against freedom of thought and religion continues in Turkmenistan. A recent report revealed that two Muslims died in top security Ovada-Depe prison in the second half of 2016. Lukman Yaylanov died in summer 2016, possibly as a result of torture, and Narkuly Baltayev several months later.

When the bodies of the two men were handed over to their families for burial, relatives had to sign a document banning them from revealing what they saw. However, Baltayev's dead body weighed no more than 25 kilos. Alive, he had been a large man.

Although it is impossible to determine for certain whether they died from torture, neglect or malnourishment, Alternative Turkmenistan News cites another prisoner at the same facility as saying that he heard Yaylanov being tortured in prison.

"When they tortured Lukman Yaylanov, we heard his cries and groans on the upper floors of the prison," said the former inmate.

The two prisoners who died were both part of an informal group of Sunni Muslim scholars led by Bahram Saparov.

The latter and 19 others, including Yaylanov, were arrested in March 2013 and sentenced to long prison in May of that year.

Yaylanov, who was from Garabekevul District, had joined Saparov’s Muslim group to study the bases of Hanafi Sunni Islam. However, the Ministry of State Security (MSS) soon began to harass him, and subject him to violent interrogations. The police even used known criminals to try to provoke group members.

Even Atageldi aga, the imam of an unregistered Sunni mosque in Khitrovka District, Ashgabat, died in a labour camp after being arrested in 2008 for exercising freedom of expression.

Some prisoners managed to survive the torture, among them Mansur Masharipov, a Jehovah’s Witness, tortured by police in the northern city of Dashoguz.

On 18 January 2013, the police opened a criminal case against members of the Saparov group. Yaylanov and Saparov were among 21 suspects detained. On 22 October 2013, at the conclusion of their trial, the court sentenced the 20 members of the group to long prison terms.

The defendants were convicted under Criminal Code Article 174, Part 1 ("Conspiracy to seize power"), Article 175, Part 2 ("Calls to violent change of the constitutional order"), Article 177, Part 3 ("Incitement of social, ethnic or religious hatred"), Article 275, Parts 1 and 2 ("Creation of an organised group, criminal association or other criminal structures or participation in their activity") and Article 291 ("Theft of extortion of weapons, military materiel, explosive substances and explosive devices").

Saparov was sentenced to 15 years in prison; the sentences of others remain unknown. Since the trials were held in secret, relatives of the accused were not informed about either charges or convictions. The defendant’s lawyers were allowed to represent their clients.

"The relatives don't even know if their children are still alive, and if yes, where they are kept," Alternative Turkmenistan News said. “When they try to visit prison camps, they are told that their children are not there, or that they had been transferred somewhere else.”

Yet, the Turkmen government claimed before the United Nations Human Rights Committee on 25 October 2016 that "In 2015 to 2016, no cases were known to Turkmenistan's Interior Ministry of harsh treatment on the part of officials towards sentenced people/”

Similarly, Turkmen authorities had earlier denied claims that people were tortured in detention in its written report submitted to the United Nations Committee Against Torture on 16 July 2015. "No cases of death resulting from torture during custody have been recorded in the country," it noted.

Like all of the country’s religious groups, Turkmen Muslims face harsh repression from the government in terms of their right to freedom of expression, religion and thought. What is more, its Sunni Muftiate (Muslim Spiritual Administration) is under strict government control.

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