Just days before a European Parliament delegation was scheduled to arrive in Ashgabat to determine whether the European Union should sign an interim trade agreement with Turkmenistan, the Turkmen government detained three local human rights defenders and their relatives, Human Rights Watch said today.

“We are profoundly concerned that those detained are at risk of torture and ill treatment,” said Holly Cartner, director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkmen government is one of the most repressive in the world, and we are convinced it has detained these individuals with the sole purpose of silencing dissent.”

All of those detained were associated with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a human rights group based in Bulgaria.

Human Rights Watch called for the immediate and unconditional release of the three rights defenders and the four relatives, who were all arrested last weekend.

In March, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committees approved a proposal for an interim trade agreement with Turkmenistan, which is rich in natural gas. But the full parliament has not yet voted on the measure.

“It’s shocking that the European Union could contemplate signing a trade agreement with a government that is so notorious for its human rights violations,” said Cartner. “The delegation members should put the release of these seven people at the top of their agenda while they’re in Ashgabat.”

On June 16, security officials in Ashgabat detained Annakurban Amanklychev, 35, a member of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. The charges against him are not known at present. But according to the organization, several witnesses reported seeing five security service agents plant a package in Amanklychev’s car, raising fears that he could be charged with illegal narcotics or weapons possession.

On June 18, police detained Elena Ovezova, 41, another member of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. Three police agents went to her home and took her into custody without producing a warrant. The same day, police detained Sapardurdy Khajiev, the brother-in-law of Tajigul Begmedova, the founder of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation.

In a speech broadcast on the Turkmen government television program Watan (Fatherland), Turkmen Minister of National Security Geldymukhammed Ashirmukhamedov accused Amanklychev of traveling to Ukraine to meet with the Turkmen political opposition. According to Radio Liberty, Ashirmukhamedov accused Amanklychev of “having ties to the Turkmen opposition abroad” and of “planning disruptive activities,” and said that that arms and ammunition were discovered in Amanklychev's car.

Both Amanklychev and Ovezova had attended the human rights summer school run by the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and a training in Donetsk held by Donetsk Memorial, a Ukrainian human rights group.

The Turkmenistan State News Service claimed that after attending the human rights summer school Amanklychev “was used by foreign security agencies for subversion.” It cited his subsequent meetings with British and French journalists as “evidence.”

“In most countries, attending a human rights training and meeting with journalists is routine, but Turkmenistan’s government apparently considers this a crime,” said Cartner. “This government will stop at nothing to silence all independent voices.”

Also on June 18, police detained Ogulsapar Muradova, a former member of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation who had been working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Police took Muradova, 58, from her home showing no warrant and claiming that they needed only to have a “conversation” with her at the station.

Muradova’s daughters, Sana and Maral, spent the night outside the Ashgabat police station where their mother was being held to seek information about her. When a police official finally went to speak to them, he demanded that they bring Muradova’s computer, fax and cell phone. When family members insisted on a warrant for this, the police official returned with a statement allegedly signed by Muradova asking that the relatives do as police said. When the relatives refused to accept the statement, the police official had them communicate, allegedly with Muradova, by walkie-talkie. Muradova asked her children to bring the items, although her voice was transformed, raising fears that she had been drugged or otherwise abused.

The next day, after Muradova’s daughters and her son, Berdy, recounted the detention to officials of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Ashgabat, police detained them as well. On June 19, police threatened to break down the door of Muradova’s apartment to force her other daughter, Aisultan, to open it. They eventually left.

The Turkmenistan State News Service article also named Khajiev, Muradova and Ovezova as individuals who had “participated in illegal acts.”

Background

Turkmenistan, ruled by President-for-life Saparmurat Niazov, remains one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world. The government tolerates no dissent, allows no media or political freedoms, and has driven into exile or imprisoned political opposition, human rights defenders and independent journalists. Dissidents are treated as criminals and are subject to internal exile, forced eviction from their homes and confiscation of their personal property. Several have been forcibly detained in psychiatric hospitals.

The government has banned opera, ballet, circus, the philharmonic orchestra and non-Turkmen cultural associations. Religious believers, particularly followers of faiths other than Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, have faced criminal prosecution, police beatings, deportation and, in some cases, demolition of their houses of worship.

Turkmenistan is a country whose leadership is sending it backwards in social and economic development. The country is rich in natural gas, but most of the population lives in grinding poverty. In 2004, President Niazov was reported to have ordered the dismissal of an estimated 15,000 healthcare workers and replaced them with military conscripts. In 2003, the government limited compulsory education to nine years, and it has cut back drastically on state-funded healthcare.