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Agence France-Presse

October 25, 2004
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Turkmen president forbids religious leaders from studying abroad
Author: Anton Lomov

Dateline: ASHGABAT

Article Text:

Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov Monday barred religious leaders in the Muslim country from studying abroad as he further tightened his iron grip over the Central Asian nation bordering Afghanistan.

"Our religious leaders will from now on study only inside the country, at the Turkmen State University," he told the country's main legislative body on the last day of its three-day annual session.

Most of the mullahs in Turkmenistan -- an authoritarian regime controlling one of the world's largest natural gas reserves -- have in recent years studied in Turkey or in Saudi Arabia.

"We will not allow outside interference in our religion," Niyazov said at the session of the Halk Maslahaty, or the People's Council.

He said that each village in Turkmenistan would from now on be allowed only one imam and warned them to stay out of politics.

"Your responsibility is not to interfere in politics," he said. "We are not going to build an Islamic government... We are not going to allow divisions and differences of opinions on religious questions."

Turkmenistan is the most tightly controlled former Soviet republic in Central Asia, where Niyazov has ruled with an iron fist since its independence 13 years ago, where opposition is not tolerated and media strictly regulated.

Turkmenistan shares a border with Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, raising the government's concerns that Islamic militants could try to enter the country.

The Halk Maslahaty is Turkmenistan's main legislative body that meets each year for three days to pay homage to Niyazov and pass laws proposed by him.

In the latest example Monday, the 2,507 deputies uniformly rejected Niyazov's offer to hold presidential elections in the country and said they would rather be governed by him.

"With your permission, we will hold presidential elections in 2008 or 2009 in Turkmenistan," said Niyazov, who had himself anointed president for life in 1999 and prefers to be referred to as Turkmenbashi (father-of-all-Turkmen) the Great.

"A new generation is coming of age," he said.

But the 2,507 deputies rejected his offer.

"God gave you to us and you must lead us until the end of your life," said Murat Sopyev, the head of the Peasants Union, echoing the sentiment of all.

"All talk of presidential elections should be considered unlawful," he said.

The deputies spent half of Monday's four-hour session trying to talk Niyazov into accepting his sixth Hero of Turkmenistan award, but he declined.

"We will discuss this question at the meeting next year," he said.

The council also passed three laws proposed by Niyazov, including allowing long-term leasing of land, slashing the number of taxes levied from 17 to four and a law on water use.

Niyazov said the details of the water law would be later published in newspapers.

Niyazov opened this year's council session on Saturday by announcing what has become the annual mass prisoner release, saying that 9,000 prisoners would be set free a few days before the end of Ramadan in mid November.

Rights groups have denounced his regime for stifling opposition and human rights violations, including inside the nation's prisons.

Also on Saturday, Niyazov said Turkmenistan's oil and gas production in for 2004 would stand at 10 million tons and 61 billion cubic meters, respectively.



Copyright 2004 Agence France-Presse
Record Number: 10*25*AFP0533*8088

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