Human Rights Developments
In 1999, the government of Turkmenistan intensified its unrelenting repression against its own citizens, launching a campaign to control or to stop the activities of all civil and religious associations as well as individual dissidents. With parliamentary elections scheduled for December, the state continued to suppress even the most benign political expression. One political prisoner died in custody; the government released two political prisoners, but imprisoned several others for their political views.
On September 9, political prisoner Khoshali Garaev, age thirty-seven, died under extremely suspicious circumstances. Garaev had been in custody since 1994. Prison officials reportedly had transferred Garaev to solitary confinement on September 8 and claimed they found him hanging the next morning. Garaev's family rejected this explanation, stating that not only was Garaev in relatively good health, but that since he had served much of his term in solitary confinement he was not likely to be distraught by the isolation. His wife noted further that in recent letters and during a June 1999 visit, Garaev was in good spirits. Garaev's co-defendant, Mukhametkuli Aimuradov, who was also sentenced to a long additional term at the end of 1998, is known to be in poor health and is being denied adequate medical treatment.
Turkmenistan added to the ranks of its political prisoners in August with the sentencing of two men who expressed a desire to run in parliamentary elections. Dr. Pirikuli Tangrykuliev received an eight-year sentence for alleged financial improprieties. Arrested in June, Tangrykuliev, a former Supreme Soviet deputy and critic of President Niazov's government, was held for six weeks without charge. On August 5 a court sentenced Ayli Meredov, a former government education official, to five years in prison, but released him from custody under an amnesty after Mr. Meredov signed a statement confessing to the "crime." He is ineligible to run for elected office for ten years under Turkmenistan's election law.
Shakhrat Razmetov, whose only crime was to attempt to meet with foreign diplomats, was sentenced to three years of imprisonment for "hooliganism." At his trial witnesses openly stated that authorities had coerced their testimony against him. In January the government freed the last two living members of the eight men imprisoned for participation in a July 1995 demonstration, Gulgeldy Annaniazov and Kurbanmurad Mammednazarov, after Annaniazov made a televised statement of "repentance."
In June, the government demanded the re-registration of many nongovernmental organizations. According to unofficial reports, the Ministry of Justice revoked at least fifteen NGO registrations. In January, the National Security Committee (KNB) broke up a meeting of journalists intending to form an independent professional association, detained some of the participants, and threatened others.
Only Russian Orthodox and Sunni Muslim confessions enjoy legal status, while the state denied registration to other confessions. Harassment of those faithful who defied this ban intensified in 1999. Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, and Pentacostals were all subject to increased persecution: police and security forces forcibly entered their private homes without warrants and broke up prayer meetings, confiscated religious literature, and threatened worshipers with the loss of their jobs. In August, Baptist pastor Shagildy Atakov was sentenced to four years in prison and fined the equivalent of U.S. $12,000 for alleged financial misdealings, but more likely for his religious activity. In September, officials summoned Pastor Korobov, head of the Evangelical Baptists in Turkmenistan and threatened to arrest him if all worship services did not cease. Also in August, KNB officers destroyed a Hare Krishna temple and forcibly deported a Krishna leader. Three Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned for conscientious objection to military service were freed early in the year.
Free expression is non-existent, thanks to a government monopoly on the media. Foreign media outlets, such as newspapers from Russia, were often confiscated from private citizens at the border. Turkmen correspondents for Radio Liberty reported that they work under constant surveillance and in fear of arrest: KNB officials questioned Saparmurad Ovezberdiev, a stringer, after his meetings with international human rights monitors. The KNB warned several journalists not to meet with an advisor to the OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media who visited Turkmenistan in April.
Amnesties in February reportedly freed 3,000 prisoners, while at the end of the year the government promised to free 6,000 to 12,000 more. Witnesses recounted that torture in prisons and pre-trial detention is routine. On December 31, Turkmenistan announced a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty.
Turkmenistan curtailed freedom of movement with its withdrawal from the CIS visa-free regime early in 1999; later restrictions made obtaining an exit visa more difficult for Turkmen citizens.
Defending Human Rights
Turkmenistan has no formal nongovernmental human rights monitoring groups. Groups such as the Russian Community ( Russkaia obshchina ), which attempted to protect the rights of its ethnic brethren, were consistently denied registration and faced serious harassment. On January 21, KNB officers arrested its co-chairman, Viacheslav Mamedov, but released him on February 3 after forcing him to sign a statement promising not to engage in any "political activities" or to speak to the press. Mamedov's co-chairman, Anatolii Fomin, remained in Russia after learning that he faced arrest upon his return to Turkmenistan.
The government also attempted to curtail the ability of international organizations to monitor human rights. On February 3, Turkmen authorities deported Sasha Petrov, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, for distributing human rights materials. Petrov had been part of a fact-finding mission that visited the country at the invitation of the Turkmen government. Before the mission arrived, security forces contacted many of the delegation's nongovernmental interlocutors and warned them not to have contact with the monitors, and during the mission, security forces summoned and debriefed those who met with the monitors.
Turkmen security officials deported Russian human rights monitors Vitalii Ponomarev and Nikolai Mitrokhin after initially allowing them entry into the country. They were said to be among the twenty-five Russian journalists on a persona non grata list banned from Turkmenistan.
The Role of the International Community
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Center in Ashgabad opened in February. As of this writing, Turkmenistan has not agreed to the Memorandum of Understanding with the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which would allow the center to begin carrying out its mission. The ODIHR representative in Ashgabad observed the Supreme Court appeal of Dr. Tangrykuliev in August.
The OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media strongly criticized Turkmenistan before the Permanent Council in May, noting that although the constitution of Turkmenistan guarantees freedom of expression, thanks to overwhelming repression "we could find no person willing to avail himself of that privilege."
The European Union (E.U.) made statements praising Turkmenistan for suspending the death penalty and expressing concern about the arrest of Dr. Tangrykuliev. The ratification process for the partnership and cooperation agreement with Turkmenistan continues to be suspended due to human rights concerns.
The U.S. Embassy in Ashgabad closely monitored violations of basic rights in Turkmenistan and reported them comprehensively in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 1998 . The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom likewise described Turkmenistan's prohibition of free worship for minority religions. These efforts as well as the attention paid to human rights by high-level delegations, including that of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, were totally undercut, however, by continued promises of financial support for the construction of the trans-Caspian pipeline without any human rights conditions attached. The U.S. released the third tranche of a grant to carry out a feasibility study for the pipeline during the same week that Dr. Tangrykuliev was sentenced. Congress allocated U.S. $102.9 million in Export-Import Bank guarantees for Turkmenistan in 1998.