Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Hon. Joseph Pitts
Commissioner - Helsinki Commission

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Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this timely hearing examining the human rights record of
Turkmenistan. As you know, I have a keen interest in the region, having traveled there last
year. I agree with you that Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive states in the OSCE
region, particularly regarding human rights issues. By every measure, Turkmenistan is
violating its OSCE commitments.

Let me mention some notable statistics in relation to Turkmenistan. In bulldozing the Hari
Krishna temple last August and the Seventh Day Adventist church last November in Ashgabat,
Turkmenistan became the only OSCE country to actually destroy places of worship. By only
permitting two religious groups to function, and both of them as quasi-governmental entities,
and by requiring, similar to other oppressive countries in the region, that any other group have
500 members before they can register, Turkmenistan maintains a repressive hold on religious
practice unparalleled in the OSCE region. Turkmenistan is the only former Soviet republic
with no legal Bible society or Bible bookstore and in spite of having 800 signatures for the a
registration application, legal status was refused last October. Turkmenistan’s cavalier attitude
toward human rights was further underscored last year when police arrested democracy
activist and former parliamentarian Mr. Pirimguli Tanrykuliev while he was lunching with the
U.S. Embassy's human rights officer, and in August sentenced him to eight years
imprisonment on trumped-up charges. Last December, two Baptist pastors were arrested and
deported while Helsinki Commission staff were meeting with government officials in Ashgabat
on human rights and religious liberty issues.

I have been personally involved, through the Religious Prisoners Congressional Task Force, in
the case of Shageldy Atakov, an ethnic Turkmen Baptist lay preacher, who is imprisoned on
trumped up charges because of his religious activity. Mr. Atakov is also considered as a
prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and Jubilee Campaign. Credible reports
indicate that he is being tortured in prison. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have also reported the
continuing arrest and torture of their members. Two weeks ago, pastor Shokhrat Piriev of the
Turkmen Church Union was arrested, his car and identity papers confiscated, and internally
deported from Ashgabat for his religious activities. Recently, his car and papers were returned,
but his church continues to be harassed by security forces. Authorities continue to show signs
that they will force Mr. Piriev to move. I find this litany of human rights abuses very
disturbing.

Unfortunately, it is not only with Turkmenistan that I am troubled. I have seen a tendency in
the engagement of our own government with Turkmenistan to over-emphasize stability and
strategic economic interests and de-emphasize human rights. Anytime a U. S. Government
official sits down with a Turkmen government official, human rights concerns must be at or
near the top of the talking points. We cannot separate our discussion on other issues from the
ongoing violations of human rights. I would like to see this message much more strongly
conveyed by all levels and all branches of the U.S. Government.

Mr. Chairman, my hope is that this hearing, along with the important work of the human
rights community, will help to fan the flames of democracy and will promote the upholding of
the fundamental human freedoms of the people of Turkmenistan. I look forward to hearing
more from our witnesses on these issues.

Once again, thank you Mr. Chairman for holding this timely and important hearing.