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Human Rights Watch World Report 1998


Human Rights Developments

The rigidly authoritarian government in Turkmenistan continued to prevent the exercise of virtuallyall civil and political rights in 1997. Turkmenistan's autocratic ruler, President Saparmurad Niyazov, used security forces and heavy censorship to repress the citizens of Turkmenistan. As a result, with almost no information on human rights abuses, no opposition, no possibility of public debate, no freedom of assembly, no foreseeable movement toward democratization, and omnipresent security services to maintain repression, there was, ironically, a sense of public calm. This allowed human rights to be effectively removed from the agenda in Turkmenistan's dialogue with outsiders keen to benefit from its hydrocarbon wealth.

One of the few documentable cases of abuse, reminiscent of the Soviet-era abuse of the psychiatric system, was that of Durdymurad Khojamuhammedov, co-chair of the banned Party of Democratic Development of Turkmenistan. He has reportedly been in mental hospitals since February 23, 1996, with no medical justification. Eight prisoners of conscience, arrested in Ashgabat on June 12, 1995 in connection with a march protesting deteriorating economic conditions, remained in jail in 1997. Their names are not known, except for Charymurad Amandurdyev. The authorities showed no signs of releasing two men serving long sentences for an alleged, but as yet unproven, plot to assassinate President Niyazov. Two men associated with the exiled opposition-Muhammedkuli Aymuradov and Khoshali Garaev, who were sentenced in 1995 to fifteen and twelve years, respectively, in strict-regime labor camps-remained in prison. There is no information about their current conditions of detention.

Turkmenistan's rubber-stamp parliament approved a new criminal code on June 12. The death penalty is provided for seventeen crimes, and the maximum custodial sentence is twenty years.

No official moves toward a general overhaul of the police, judicial and penitentiary systems were reported. In one move reflecting apparent dissatisfaction with the prosecution service, the president replaced the prosecutor general, Bayrammurad Ashyrlyev, on April 3 with Deputy Prosecutor Gurbanbibi Atajanova. In firing Ashyrlyev, President Niyazov launched an attack on prosecution officials, accusing them of incompetence and corruption and of prosecuting the innocent instead of criminals. Three days later, he chastised police and security forces for failing to understand the requirements of building a "law-governed democratic state"-without defining how he himself planned to move in that direction. By the year's end it was unclear whether his criticisms had effected any improvements.

In an apparent attempt to alleviate overcrowding in the prisons, the president reportedly released at least 5,000 prisoners in two amnesties in December 1996 and June 1997. Under the June amnesty, death sentences passed on 222 prisoners were also reportedly commuted to sentences of between ten and twenty years. No figures for the number of executions carried out in 1997 were available; there were an appalling 400 in 1996, making Turkmenistan a world leader in per capita state executions.

A death penalty case that highlighted the arbitrary and biased methods of Turkmenistan's criminal justice system was that of Ashirgeldy Sadyyev. Sadyyev was sentenced to death for drug trafficking on May 21. Amnesty International and other sources familiar with the case reported that the case against him was fabricated.

The Right to Monitor

The harsh oppression that pervades Turkmenistan society made comprehensive monitoring of human rights virtually impossible. There are no known local groups documenting violations of civil and political rights. It is almost impossible for foreign groups to contact locals without endangering the latter with grave consequences, such as harassment by security forces or arrest. The government established an Institute for Democratization and Human Rights in October 1996, but so far noevidence suggests that it has even the most limited mandate to seek the truth or effect change.

The Role of the

International Community

There was virtually no public criticism of Turkmenistan's human rights record by international actors. In one exception, the U.S. Department of State's Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996, provided a comprehensive and highly critical overview of abuses. Foreign governments made no known demarches on human rights matters. This is no doubt in part due to the lack of new individual cases in such an atmosphere of total repression. However, their silence and that of international donors creates a sense of impunity among Turkmenistan's already insulated leadership.

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