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Four fines for Bibles

After the local police officer in Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabad found Bibles in the possessions of three guests at a local Protestant's home, all four were taken to the government's Council for Religious Affairs for questioning, then held for an hour in an overcrowded detention cell, before being taken to court, Protestants told Forum 18 News Service. Although the judge refused to try them without proper documentation, they were brought back and fined by the same judge a week later for "violation of the law on religious organisations".

Confiscation, questioning

Trouble for the four Protestants began when the local police officer telephoned to say he was coming to check the home of a local Protestant in Ashgabad. Three Protestants from outside the capital were staying with the local Protestant. "You can't refuse when the local police officer asks to check your home," one Ashgabad resident familiar with the case told Forum 18. They asked that the four not be identified to protect them from further harassment.

During his 20 February visit, the police officer found one Bible in each of the visitors' bags. The Bibles were confiscated, together with at least one mobile phone, and all four Protestants were taken to the Gengesh. There they were questioned about their religious activity. The Gengesh official reportedly shouted at them, accusing them of having brought "illegal" religious literature into Turkmenistan. However, the official had a copy of the same Bible in his office.

The Gengesh official then threatened to have drugs planted on the four. "Then you'll be in on another charge," he warned them.

The four Protestants were then taken to a detention facility, where they were put in a cell designed for about four detainees but which contained 17, with no room to sit down. After an hour they were brought out to be taken to a judge. However, she refused to hear a case against the four, insisting that no trial could take place as police had presented no proof of wrongdoing and no documentation.

Despite complaining that the four had created undue work for them, police were obliged to let the four Protestants go. But officers told them they were not allowed to leave Ashgabad while the investigation against them continued.

Trial, fines

The four Protestants were summoned to a local Ashgabad court on 27 February, for a trial presided over by the same judge. All four were found guilty of violating Article 205 of the Code of Administrative Offences ("violation of the law on religious organisations"). The judge fined each of them 357 Manats (714 Norwegian Kroner, 94 Euros or 125 US Dollars).

Article 205 specifies fines of between five and ten times the minimum monthly wage for refusing to register a religious community or participating in an unregistered religious community. Fines can be doubled for repeat offenders (see Turkmenistan religious freedom survey http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1676).

"Perhaps there had been pressure on the judge to force her to change her stance," an Ashgabad resident familiar with the case told Forum 18.

The four Protestants each reluctantly paid the fines, despite believing that they had done nothing wrong. Had they refused to do so, they could have faced up to 15 days in prison.


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