Hare Krishna devotee Cheper Annaniyazova was freed from the women’s labour camp in Dashoguz [Dashhowuz] in northern Turkmenistan on the morning of 19 October, as part of the country’s annual prisoner amnesty, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. She has now returned to her family in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat]. "Of course we’re all very pleased to have her home," sources close to her case told Forum 18 News Service on 21 October. However, she remains restricted in her rights.
Sources told Forum 18 that Annaniyazova has to report daily to the local police in Ashgabad and is unlikely to be allowed to travel abroad again for at least four more years. "But this is less important - the main thing is that she is now back at home," sources told Forum 18.
Her release came as part of the amnesty declared by President Saparmurat Niyazov at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Official sources say that 10,056 prisoners were due to be freed, including "almost all" female prisoners. It remains unclear whether Annaniyazova was obliged to swear the oath of loyalty to the president on a copy of the Koran as other prisoners freed in the amnesty are supposed to do.
The oath of loyalty reads in translation: "Turkmenistan, you are always with me in my thoughts and in my heart. For the slightest evil against you let my hand be cut off. For the slightest slander about you let my tongue be cut off. At the moment of my betrayal of my motherland, of her sacred banner, of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi [Father of the Turkmens] the Great [i.e. President Saparmurat Niyazov], let my breath stop."
Annaniyazova, who was born in 1968, was one of the first people in Turkmenistan to become a Hare Krishna devotee. In 2002 she sought an exit visa to be allowed to leave to travel to Kazakhstan to live at the Hare Krishna temple in Almaty, but was refused. However, she went anyway. It was after her return to Turkmenistan in May 2005 that she was arrested for illegally crossing the border, although exit visas had by then formally been abolished. However, the exit blacklist was not and has not been abolished (see F18News 31 May 2006 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=790>).
Cheper Annaniyazova (who has the religious name Caitanya Rupini) had served a year of a seven-year sentence imposed under three charges, two of which related to illegally crossing the border three years ago when she went to Kazakhstan to live at the Hare Krishna temple in Almaty (see F18News 17 November 2005 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=690>). The third charge was not made public and the extra sentence imposed in the wake of the accusation was likewise not made public, though the sentence she received exceeds the maximum penalty possible under the known accusations.
It is thought within Turkmenistan that the heavy sentence was imposed at the behest of the MSS (Ministry of State Security) secret police, in order to intimidate the Hare Krishna community (see F18News 5 December 2005 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=699>). Many others who did what Annaniyazova did were not charged, she stated (see F18News 17November 2005 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=690>).
No recent news has been heard of former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment in March 2004 at a closed trial in Ashgabad. The Turkmen government has refused repeated international requests to make the verdict public (see F18News 8 March 2004 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=271>).
The Hare Krishna community is one of the registered religious communities within Turkmenistan. However, many within religious communities doubt whether registration makes any real improvement to their situation in practice (see F18News 24 May 2006 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=787>). Unregistered religious activity remains - against international human rights standards - illegal. Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service <http://www.forum18.org>