Ilmurad Nurliev was given a four-year sentence in October 2010
A pastor of an unregistered church in Turkmenistan has been unexpectedly set free from a labour camp in an amnesty of prisoners.
Ilmurad Nurliev (46) was released along with around 230 other detainees in the presidentially-decreed amnesty to mark Flag Day on 19 February.
His wife Maya said:
His release was so unexpected… It is such a joy I can’t tell you.
Pastor Nurliev had been arrested in August 2010 and given a four-year sentence with “forcible medical treatment” in October the same year on charges of swindling. His congregation insisted that these charges were fabricated to punish him for leading the unregistered church.
Barnabas Fund sent financial support to buy food, clothes and medicine for the pastor, who is diabetic, and help with legal costs when he was imprisoned.
I want to thank everyone who supported me and helped my release.
Pastor Nurliev spent the first ten days at the camp in isolation but after that joined the other detainees. He said that conditions were “not too bad” and that he had not been beaten.
He was able to receive the medicine that his wife brought for him but was not allowed to have a copy of the Bible; his request for one, made after seeing that Muslim imams had copies of the Quran, was refused without explanation.
Pastor Nurliev was given only a quick look at some of the many letters, cards and photographs sent to him from well-wishers around the world. He was nevertheless encouraged by them, saying, “They showed me I was not forgotten.”
Despite his release, Pastor Nurliev, who has a daughter and two grandchildren, is not completely free; he has to report to the police every Saturday evening. And it remains unclear if he is still barred from leaving Turkmenistan; his name has been on an exit blacklist since at least 2007.
His church first applied for registration that year and was later told to amend the application, which was then resubmitted in January 2010. They have had no response.
In February 2009, Pastor Nurliev’s home was raided by the police, who confiscated 225 Christian cassettes and DVDs.
A Religion Law passed in 2003 forbids any activity by unregistered religious groups, yet it is extremely difficult for churches to obtain official recognition. In January 2011 the Turkmen government told the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that only 127 religious groups had been granted state registration; of these, 103 were Muslim.