Begjan Shirmedov (77) was forced to write a statement and banned from travelling outside his home region of Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan while the case is investigated.
Begjan was detained on 3 February by a religious affairs official, who was waiting for him when he returned to the printing shop to collect his order. The Christian was taken to the Police 6th Department, which is responsible for counter-terrorism and organised crime work, where he was questioned for six hours.
Begjan has been writing Christian poetry in Turkmen for some years. He wanted to have some of his work printed so that he could give copies away.Turkmenistan imposes strict censorship on religious literature and, knowing this, Begjan told the staff in the printing shop that the poetry was religious. They insisted that it would not be a problem to print it.
Begjan is a member of a church that has been unable to obtain state registration, despite repeated efforts, and has faced persecution. Around 40 church members were forced to abandon their holiday in Avaza on the Caspian Sea last August after they were detained, questioned and insulted by the police and local imam because of their faith.
A separate investigation is also underway in Dashoguz against members of another church for printing materials for use at a Christian meeting towards the end of last year. Several church members have been interrogated over the matter.
Publishing of religious books is almost impossible in Turkmenistan, and the government has blocked repeated attempts by churches to form a Bible Society, which would translate and disseminate Bibles and other Christian literature.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been able to import religious literature, but it is almost impossible for other Christian denominations and religious groups to do so.
Although the country’s constitution provides for religious freedom, the 2003 Religion Law contradicts all those liberties; Christians face many restrictions on their activities.
Turkmenistan’s record on restricting religious freedom has been repeatedly condemned by various UN bodies. Most recently, in December, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights criticised a range of measures, including the ban on meeting for worship in private homes, the ban on unregistered religious activity and “undue registration criteria” that hinder many religious groups from obtaining official recognition.