Baptist prisoner Shageldy Atakov is reported to be in such poor physical condition in the wake of repeated beatings, a spell in the labor camp sick-bay in December with early signs of a heart attack, then a spell in the internal camp prison in January, that he is preparing for death. The German-based Friedensstimme Mission, citing Baptist sources in Turkmenistan, told Keston News Service on February 3 that the amnesty commission that recently visited the labor camp told the authorities "to break him morally or destroy him physically."

Local Baptists believe the authorities of the camp in the town of Seydy in northeastern Turkmenistan where he is being held are now carrying this out. "They have decided to finish him off."

On February 3 and 4 Atakov was allowed a visit from his wife Artygul. During the visit he was reportedly bruised and battered, his kidneys and liver hurt, and he was suffering from jaundice. He could barely walk and frequently lost consciousness.

"He does not expect to live," Friedensstimme reported. "He said, 'Farewell.'"

Atakov had earlier been reported as recovering well from the early symptoms of a heart attack he suffered in December. It is not known why he was sent to the camp prison (known in Russian as a SHIZO) in January.

Friedensstimme reported that the amnesty commission had offered that if he swore the oath of allegiance to the president he would be freed under the amnesty declared by President Saparmurat Niyazov in December "If not, they would destroy him," local Baptists told Friedensstimme.

The mission in Ashgabad of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (of which Turkmenistan is a member) told Keston that it has been following Atakov's case with concern. "Over the past year every high-level visitor we've had has mentioned his name as one of a number of cases with the Turkmen authorities and our head of office Ambassador Istvan Venczel has taken up his case," Bess Brown told Keston from Ashgabad on February 5. "Since the freeing of [political prisoners] Nurberdi Nurmamedov and Pirimguly Tangryguliyev in the December amnesty, the OSCE has continued to express concern about Atakov and is urging the Turkmen authorities to free him."

The 38-year-old Atakov, who is married with five children, is serving a four year sentence on charges of swindling which church members insist were instigated to obstruct his activity with the church. Atakov was originally arrested on December 18, 1998, in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi. He was sentenced to two years' imprisonment and fined on March 19, 1999, but was retried on August 4, 1999, and given an increased sentence.

Article continues below

Atakov belongs to a Baptist congregation affiliated with the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, a group founded in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and which refuses to register in any of the post-Soviet republics where it operates. Its congregations in Turkmenistan have been subjected to particular persecution.

Police have also recently raided another Bible study being held by a Protestant church in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabad hoping to crush remaining Protestant activity in the Central Asian state.

The Bible study organized by the Word of Life church was raided in the evening of January 31 and the 25 people attending were taken to the police station, where they were interrogated. Reports say one of the Protestants was beaten by the police. All were said to have been freed the same evening. There is no information on whether any of them were fined.

During their detention, police officers and representatives of the khyakimlik (local administration) pressured the Protestants to write statements saying they would no longer take part in such "illegal" religious activity. Most of them reportedly refused to write such statements.

The Turkmen government regards all activity by all Protestant churches as illegal, despite the fact that no published law specifically bans unregistered religious activity (Protestant churches are not allowed to gain registration.)

January has been a month of increased police pressure on Protestant communities, including fines on members of the Pentecostal church and the Church of Christ in Ashgabad, a raid on members of Ashgabad's Greater Grace church, the revocation of the residence permit in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi , the expulsion of a leading pastor of a Baptist church, and the detention of a Protestant Christian in the capital by police searching for three Protestant leaders currently in hiding.

However, there was some positive news for the beleaguered Protestant community when an appeal hearing on January 31 ruled that an earlier court ruling to confiscate Ashgabad's Pentecostal church was "flawed" and sent the case back to the lower court.

Related Elsewhere:

The BBC and Agence France Presse are also covering Atakov's situation.

Previous Christianity Today stories about religious persecution in Turkmenistan include:

Turkmenistan Police Evict Christians | Families punished after four men are arrested for owning Christian videos. (Dec. 21, 2000)

Article continues below

Turkmenistan Police Torture Four Christians | Crackdown on Protestants includes beatings, interrogations, and electric shocks. (Dec. 7, 2000)

Turkmenistan Refuses To Register Bible Society | Government confiscating Turkmen, Russian Scriptures. (March 16, 2000)

Turkmen Secret Police Deports Baptist Couple | More expulsions expected as efforts continue to stop 'illegal' religious activity. (March 15, 2000)

Turkmen Baptist Pastor Threatened with Prison | Two church members in Turkmenabad fired from jobs

Turkmenistan Deports Two Baptist Pastors | Christians arrested last week sent to Ukraine (Dec. 29, 1999)

Two Baptist Pastors Arrested by Secret Police in Turkmenistan | Crackdown on Unregistered Minority Communities Continues (Dec. 28, 1999)

Pastor Faces Thursday Trial In Turkmenistan | Baptist minister accused of teaching children religion without parental consent. (Dec. 10, 1999)