The Kazakh government will put a leading Turkmen dissident at grave risk if he is deported to Turkmenistan, Human Rights Watch said today.

A diplomatic source close to the case reported that Kazakh authorities intend to deport dissident Gulgeldi Annaniazov on Sunday, September 15.

"This is a matter of life or death," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world. The entire international community in Kazakhstan should make sure that Annaniazov is not deported, has the opportunity to apply for refugee status, and has access to a lawyer and, if necessary, a doctor."

Annaniazov is currently being held incommunicado by the Kazakh Committee for National Security (formerly the KGB) in Pavlodar, in northeastern Kazakhstan. As of September 11, Kazakh authorities had not allowed the Kazakhstan office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to interview him, nor have they allowed him access to a public defender or representatives of local human rights groups. Deporting Annaniazov to Turkmenistan would be in violation of Kazakstan's obligations as a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention against Torture not to return someone to a country where they face the risk of torture or other forms of persecution.

Case background
In 1995, Gulgeldi Annaniazov was sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment for the role he played in organizing a demonstration in Ashgabat. The protest, unprecedented in Turkmenistan, called for democratic elections, among other things. Annaniazov is one of the "Ashgabad Eight," who were all imprisoned in relation to the protest and later released after an international campaign on their behalf. Annaniazov was released in 1999, but he and his family were then subjected to constant surveillance. Many believe he was on a "black list" of individuals banned from travel abroad.

At the end of August 2002, Annaniazov, 42, fled from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan, and then to Russia on September 1, seeking asylum. The next day Russian authorities deported him back to Kazakhstan without allowing him to apply for political asylum, allegedly because he arrived on a false passport.

Kazakh officials have disregarded intense diplomatic pressure aimed at preventing deportation and allowing the UNHCR to have access to Annaniazov. The United States has been particularly active in pressing Annaniazov's case.

"Sending Annaniazov to Turkmenistan would show the Kazakh government's complete disdain both for its international obligations and for the concerns of the international community," said Andersen. "This case is no different from the worst days of the Soviet era. But what government would have deported a Soviet dissident back to Moscow in 1971?"

The Turkmen government tolerates no free media or political opposition and crushes many forms of free expression and belief. In 2000, President Saparmurat Niazov was declared president for life. Most Turkmen opposition figures were driven into exile in the early 1990s, the remainder were thrown in prison and tortured. Most were released, and after the awful prison experience and constant surveillance afterward do not dare speak out again.

The Russian Orthodox Church and government-approved Sunni Islam are the only religions that may operate houses of worship. The government has banned opera, ballet, the philharmonia, and even the circus. Non-Turkmen cultural organizations are banned.