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A new dictatorship will be consolidated in Turkmenistan by the pro forma presidential election on February 11 unless strong international voices insist on real human rights reform, Human Rights Watch said today. The election is for the successor to Saparmurad Niazov, who died in December after two decades of increasingly tyrannical rule.

“The February 11 presidential election will be neither free nor fair, and the result is a foregone conclusion,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The international community has strangely failed to criticize the upcoming Turkmen election. It may be polite for outsiders to restrain their criticism to avoid accusations of prejudging the poll, but it’s clear the Turkmen authorities themselves have already prejudged the outcome.”

Sunday’s poll will be the first multi-candidate presidential election in gas-rich Turkmenistan. But all six candidates are from the only permitted political party, and were pre-selected by the country’s supreme legislature. Candidates must have held state office and been resident in Turkmenistan for at least the past 15 years. These conditions made it impossible for opposition candidates to participate, since most opposition leaders are in exile and barred even from entering the country. The only potential independent candidate inside Turkmenistan, Nurberdy Nurmamedov, was reportedly abducted and beaten shortly after Niazov’s death was announced; he is now believed to be under house arrest.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the health minister at the time of Niazov’s death, seems virtually assured of victory. The constitutionally designated acting successor to Niazov, parliamentary chairman Ovezgeldy Ataev, was arrested within hours of Niazov’s death being announced. Berdymukhammedov was named acting president, and a constitutional provision barring the acting president from contesting the election was hastily stuck down by the rubber-stamp parliament. The Central Election Commission chairman has declared his commitment to “do everything necessary” to secure Berdymukhammedov’s victory.

“There are several candidates in the Turkmen election, but no real choice,” said Cartner.

Candidates in the election have talked of the need for reforms in health, education and the pension system, and the government has promised to make internet access more available. But there have been no promises to end a range of human rights violations that characterized the Niazov era.

“Foreign governments and corporations will be eager to establish close relations with Ashgabat and its vast gas resources,” said Cartner. “But since Turkmenistan will also want to do business, they should use this opportunity to press for human rights improvements.”

Human Rights Watch has issued a set of benchmarks that it said governments should adopt as a condition for deepening engagement with Turkmenistan. In October 2006, a European Parliament committee voted to stop further consideration of a trade agreement with Turkmenistan until its government significantly improved its human rights record. The committee cited in particular the need to release all political prisoners, allow the registration and free functioning of nongovernmental organizations, permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to work freely in the country, and to grant United Nations human rights monitors “timely” access to Turkmenistan to monitor the situation.

“Institutions seeking to engage with Turkmenistan’s new leadership shouldn’t give it the benefit of the doubt just because Niazov is gone, but should push for these reforms,” said Cartner. “Foreign governments need to make clear that Turkmenistan’s new leadership will be judged on solid evidence of human rights progress.”

Background: The Niazov Era, Engagement and Evidence of Reform

Turkmenistan under Niazov: One of the most repressive countries in the world
Niazov, who was president for life, terrorized Turkmen government and society. Frequent purges of his government resulted in lengthy prison sentences for officials. He personally controlled the country’s foreign-held hard currency accounts. His official title was Turkmenbashi, or father of the Turkmen people, and he also called himself a prophet. Niazov’s Rukhnama, or “Book of the Soul,” a collection of his sayings, has been paramount in school curricula and required reading for civil servants, who had to pass exams on it. Niazov’s pervasive personality cult gained much attention and ironic media comment abroad, but for the population subject to Niazov’s monstrous policies and his legacy, life in Turkmenistan was, and is, no joke.

The Turkmen government tolerates no dissent, allows no media or political freedoms, and has driven into exile or imprisoned members of the political opposition, human rights defenders, and independent journalists. Dissidents are treated as criminals and have been subjected to internal exile, forced eviction from their homes, and confiscation of their personal property. Several have been forcibly detained in psychiatric hospitals. Torture is rampant in places of detention. In September, Olgusapar Muradova, a human rights defender and Radio Liberty correspondent, died in prison in highly suspicious circumstances after being convicted on politically motivated charges of illegal weapons possession. Dozens of people arrested in the wake of an armed attack on Niazov in 2002 are believed to be held incommunicado following closed trials. Great numbers of people are thought to be blacklisted and banned from leaving the country, and the government denies entry to foreign journalists and human rights defenders.

The government banned opera, ballet, the 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.

Under Niazov, the government sent the country backwards in social and economic development. The country is rich in natural gas, but most of the population lives in grinding poverty. In 2004, Niazov was reported to have ordered the dismissal of an estimated 15,000 healthcare workers and replaced them with military conscripts. Beginning in 1994, the government limited compulsory education to nine years, stopped recognizing degrees earned abroad, and cut back drastically on state-funded healthcare.

Promises of Reform
Berdymukhammedov has emphasized repeatedly that he would continue the policies of Niazov, a worrying sign that some of the worst aspects of the Niazov regime may remain in place. The only sign of political reform that nods in the direction of human rights was a promise to make the internet more accessible in Turkmenistan.

Following Niazov’s death and during the election campaign period, the government and presidential candidates have promised social and economic reform. The government pledged to restore the tenth grade to the compulsory education system, allow more students to study abroad, and attract more foreign specialists into Turkmenistan’s higher education system. No specific promises have been made, however, to restore the full program of compulsory education.

Berdymukhammedov also promised to improve the pension system, ensure that pensions and salaries are paid on time, and provide gas, water, electricity and salt free of charge to consumers.

Minimum Benchmarks for Engagement
A complete set of benchmarks for across-the-board reform must include the following:

  • Release prisoners of conscience, and provide independent review of the cases of all political prisoners, including the persons imprisoned in connection with the alleged assassination attempt against Niazov in November 2002, and persons imprisoned in the context of the frequent purges of state officials. Guarantee full access to places of detention in Turkmenistan by the ICRC;
  • Guarantee the unfettered functioning of UN special rapporteurs and other thematic mechanisms in accordance with Article 4 (h) of the April 15, 2003 UN Commission on Human Rights statement on the situation in Turkmenistan;
  • Guarantee access to the country for Professor Emmanuel Decaux, rapporteur on Turkmenistan for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), so that he may complete the work begun in 2002 under the Moscow Mechanism;
  • Allow independent investigation of deaths in custody, notably the death of journalist Ogulsapar Muradova in September 2006;
  • Guarantee freedom of movement. This should include rescinding the blacklisting of persons from travel overseas, and cancellation of the punishment of internal exile or forced relocation imposed on certain individuals and groups;
  • Allow freedom of expression and information. This should include lifting of all restrictions on independent journalistic activity, including access for, and free functioning of, foreign journalists in the country;
  • Allow freedom of religion;
  • Fully restore the education system;
  • Restore a functioning healthcare system, cancelling the policies that saw healthcare workers replaced by military conscripts in most of the country’s healthcare facilities;
  • Establish a genuinely pluralistic political environment, including registration of alternative political parties, and conditions for future elections to be conducted in accordance with democratic standards as determined by OSCE Copenhagen commitments. Exiled opposition figures should be allowed to return to Turkmenistan and participate in the political life of the country.
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