(Brussels) – European Union officials should press the Turkmen foreign minister for concrete human rights improvements during his meetings in Brussels on April 9, 2013.
Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov is scheduled to meet in Brussels with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and other high-level EU officials to discuss energy issues and Turkmenistan’s potential accession to the World Trade Organization.
“EU officials should not miss this rare, high-level opportunity to privately and publicly press for human rights improvements in Turkmenistan,” said Rachel Denber , deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU officials need to make clear that Turkmenistan’s natural resources can’t buy impunity and that its appalling human rights record is hindering deeper relations with the EU.”
Turkmenistan , rich in natural gas, is one of the most repressive countries in the world. The government threatens, harasses, and arrests people who question its policies, however modestly.Political prisoners languish in its prisons, some are forcibly disappeared, and the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and religion are subject to draconian restrictions. The country is virtually closed to independent scrutiny, and independent civil society and media cannot operate openly, if at all.
For more than a decade, Turkmenistan’s abysmal human rights record has held up upgraded relations with the EU in the form of a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). The agreement contains a clause committing both parties to respect human rights.
The European Parliament has repeatedly postponed approving the agreement, which the European External Action Service, the European Commission, and the majority of EU member states appear to favor.
In 2008 the European Parliament set specific benchmarks the Turkmen government would have to fulfill as a condition for upgraded relations with the EU, including the release of political prisoners, “abolishing government impediments to travel abroad,” and “allowing free access of independent NGOs and permitting the United Nations human rights bodies to operate freely in the country to monitor.”
Human Rights Watch said the European External Action Service, the European Commission, and member states have persistently failed to engage Turkmen authorities actively to see that Turkmenistan meets the benchmarks and more generally to press for concrete rights improvements as part of their engagement with Ashgabat.
“The EU has missed too many chances to do the only right thing in response to persistent human rights abuses in Turkmenistan, but it can turn things around with Meredov’s visit,” Denber said. “It can start with urging a full accounting of the fate and whereabouts of people languishing in prison incommunicado, and in particular those who have been forcibly disappeared.”
The EU should press Meredov to have his government reveal the situations and whereabouts of several dozen prisoners convicted in relation to the November 2002 alleged assassination attempt on then-President Saparmurat Niazov, Human Rights Watch said.
“A decade has passed since these men were arrested, and in some cases their families don’t know whether they are dead or alive,” Denber said. “Some have been forcibly disappeared, a grave violation of international law.”
EU officials should also urge Meredov to release the political dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov, Human Rights Watch said. Annaniazov was arrested in 2008 and is serving an 11-year sentence on unknown charges. His relatives have not been allowed to visit him since his arrest, were not informed about the time and place of his trial, and have had no official information about him in almost five years.
On February 16, 2013, the Turkmen government released  two men, Annakurban Amanklychev and Saparurdy Khajiev, imprisoned for their work to expose human rights violations in the country, after they had served their full prison terms.
“No one should be praising Turkmenistan for releasing Amanklychev and Khajiev after they lost more than six years of their lives serving out their terms on utterly bogus charges,” said Denber. “But the releases create momentum for the EU to press Meredov for the government to stop using prison as political retaliation.”
Several weeks later the authorities also released two popular singers,Murad Ovezov and Maksat Kakabaev, who were arrested January 2011 after their joint music video and an interview with them were aired on a Turkish satellite channel. Kakabaev’s father, brother, and brother-in-law were also convicted and sentenced to two-year prison sentences in retribution for the broadcast. Due to severe difficulty in obtaining information about prisoners in Turkmenistan, Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm the fate and whereabouts of Kakabaev’s father, brother, and brother-in-law.
Human Rights Watch said EU officials should also publicly press Meredov on other European Parliament benchmarks, including lifting travel bans on activists and their relatives, and allowing independent human-rights monitors– in particular the UN special rapporteurs who have requested invitations– to visit the country.