BUDAPEST/MOSCOW :– There was international concern Tuesday, August 14, about the fate of two detained Baptist leaders in the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.
Forum 18, a well-informed religious rights group, said it has learned that Turkmenistan released a key Muslim leader, former Chief Mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, but stressed that “the other known religious prisoner Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky” had not been released.
Family members say the pastor is still being held in a labor camp “with harsh conditions” and insist that he is being punished for activities related to his unregistered Baptist congregation. In addition several Jehovah’s Witnesses have recently been given suspended jail sentences for refusing military service on religious grounds, Forum 18 said.
“Since Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became President [of Turkmenistan] in early 2007, raids, fines, public threats, imprisonment and other violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief have significantly increased,” the group added.
The detention is the latest in a series of tensions in Turkmenistan, effectively a one-party state, ruled by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan led by the late president Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in December 2006.
The late leader styled himself Turkmenbashi, or Father of the Turkmen, and made himself the center of an omnipresent cult of personality and his successor, Kurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, has said he will follow in Niyazov’s footsteps.
The ongoing detention of Pastor Kalataevsky comes days after elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, in neighboring Azerbaijan, authorities sentenced Baptist Pastor Zaur Balaev to two years imprisonment, BosNewsLife monitored.
Pastor Balaev from Aliabad in northern Azerbaijan was reportedly sentenced August 8 oncharges of using violence against a state representative and accused of holding “illegal meetings under the guise of religious activity without concrete authority and without state registration,” attracting young people to worship services and playing loud music there.
Forum 18 observers said Azerbaijan’s authorities “changed their accusations whilst Balaev has been held, initially claiming that he set a dog on police during a raid on a Sunday worship service.”
However, after over 50 people signed a written statement testifying to Balaev’s innocence, “the dog disappeared” from the authorities’ claims and Balaev was instead accused of attacking five policemen and damaging a police car door, Forum 18 said.
The authorities’ claims have been denied by Christians and even prosecution witnesses reportedly admitted they had not witnessed the alleged assault by Pastor Balaev, saying they heard about the incident from people at the market, teahouse, or from police pressuring them into testifying.
“We’re preparing to submit an appeal,” Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union said in a statement released by Forum 18 News Service. Officials were not available for comment.
It comes amid concerns among trial watchers and human rights groups about the pastors’ health. “We are greatly concerned about Pastor Zaur’s health,” said Christian rights group Jubilee Campaign USA in a statement to BosNewsLife.
“There are reports that due to some pre-existing heart problems, Zaur has suffered two heart attacks in prison, one on July 23 and another one on August 5. He has also begun experiencing serious kidney pain,” the group said. “Worsening the situation immensely, the condition of Zaur’s prison cell is deplorable by even the lowest standards. Such circumstance will further exacerbate his health problems, «the group added.
The latest developments have underscored Western criticism towards Ilham Aliyev who took over as president from his father, Heydar, in 2003. Heydar Aliyev reportedly described his son as his “political successor”. When his father died, Ilham was already prime minister, vice chairman of the state oil company and deputy leader of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (NAP).
He won the 2003 presidential elections by a landslide, but Western observers and dissidents said the campaign and ballot had been marred by voter intimidation, violence and media bias. Opposition demonstrations were met with police violence and observers said there were many arrests.
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