President Bush’s meeting with President Berdymukhamedov on the sidelines of the April 2008 NATO summit could be viewed by some as a step towards a possible state visit. We urge you to establish human rights benchmarks and ensure that progress is achieved toward meeting them before any such visit can take place.
The Turkmen government has begun to reverse some of the ruinous social policies and to dismantle the cult of personality that characterized President Niazov’s rule. But it remains one of the most repressive and authoritarian in the world.
The US can help ensure improvements by focusing on benchmark issues highlighted by Turkmenistan’s other international partners, in particular the European Union, which is also intensifying its diplomacy with Turkmenistan. The European Union’s minimum criteria that the Turkmen government must meet before the EU can sign an Interim Trade Agreement with Turkmenistan include:
- realigning the educational system with international standards;
- releasing all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience;
- abolishing governmental impediments to travel abroad; and
- allowing free access of independent NGOs and permitting UN human rights bodies to operate freely in the country to monitor such progress.
In November 2007 Human Rights Watch published a briefing paper that provides a detailed overview of the grim human rights situation in Turkmenistan under Berdymukhamedov, including in the latter three of the above benchmark areas. Below, we summarize and update these concerns.
After two decades of intolerance to dissent and widespread abuse of the criminal justice system for governmental purges, hundreds and possibly thousands of people have either served or continue to serve lengthy prison terms as a result of closed, unfair trials. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s government has released approximately two dozen people believed to have been imprisoned for political reasons but has not proposed a process for reviewing these cases. Human Rights Watch believes that only a nationwide, transparent review of political cases of past years could help to establish the real number of political prisoners, and begin to provide them with justice. We also believe that resolving the injustices of the past can help to ensure that they will not be repeated in the future.
Until such a review begins, and until human rights groups can operate in Turkmenistan, it will remain exceedingly difficult to estimate the numbers of political prisoners, past or present. Three cases, however, can be addressed immediately. First is Mukhametkuli Aimuradov, the only person whom the Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2007 acknowledges as a political prisoner. Human Rights Watch also considers as political prisoners Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who are affiliated with a Turkmen human rights group in exile, and were sentenced in 2006 to seven years of imprisonment on bogus charges of possession of ammunition.
Berdymukhamedov’s government has continued to criminally prosecute those whom it wishes to purge from government service, as we illustrated in our November 2007 briefing paper. Equally worrisome, it has recently arrested at least one social activist, Valery Pal, on what appear to be politically motivated grounds. According to the Democratic Civil Union of Turkmenistan, Pal was arrested in February in connection with the apparent 2004 theft of printer cartridges and the like at the oil refinery where he worked.1 He was sentenced on May 13 to 12 years of imprisonment on embezzlement charges.
Four things point to a political motivation for his arrest and conviction. First, Pal, a computer engineer, had actively helped civic activists use information technology to send information about Turkmenistan to the outside world; he also participated in several human rights projects. Second, Pal is being accused only now of embezzlement that allegedly happened in 2004. Third, his defense lawyer has said that none of his objections and petitions was taken into account by the court. Pal’s wife was allegedly told by the investigator that her husband will be a “scapegoat.” Finally, as noted below, pressure on activists like Pal in Turkmenistan continues. Amnesty International adopted Pal as a possible prisoner of conscience.
The United States should urge Turkmen authorities to immediately release Mukhametkuli Aimuradov, Sapardurdy Khajiev and Annakurban Amanklychev, and start a nation-wide process of review of possible politically motivated cases of past years. The United States should also advocate for the immediate release of Valery Pal.
Restrictions on NGO activities and human rights monitoring
The past year saw a number of international visits to Turkmenistan—including delegations from the United States—some of which included policy discussions with the government about human rights. But no independent organization has been able to do research on human rights abuses inside the country, and no agency—governmental or nongovernmental—has had access to detention facilities.
The ability of non-governmental organizations—domestic and international—to operate in a country without undue interference is an essential component of human rights protection and a democratic society based on rule of law. As the Department of State itself notes in its 2007 report, NGO activists continue to report harassment in Turkmenistan. NGOs are legally banned from carrying out any work unless they are registered, yet no independent NGO has obtained registration under Berdymukhamedov. What is more, several months ago an official made clear to a local activist that while applications for registration might be accepted, NGOs and media outlets should not expect registration anytime soon.
The United States should urge the government of Turkmenistan to stop the pressure on local activists and to allow national and international organizations to conduct human rights monitoring, including through effective access to detention places.
Freedom of movement
While some individuals have been permitted to travel abroad, thanks in large measure to efforts on their behalf by the US government, the system of foreign travel restrictions inherited from the Niazov era remains in place, and people continue to be arbitrarily forbidden from traveling abroad. For example, three months after he requested permission to travel to abroad, Andrey Zatoka, a well-known environmental activist, was told in February 2008 he was banned from travel for reasons that were not explained to him.
Another recent case is that of Rashid Ruzimatov and Irina Kakabaeva, relatives of an exiled former government official, who have been banned from travel abroad since 2003. In the past six years Ruzimatov and Kakabaeva wrote to government officials several times to inquire as to why they were forbidden from traveling and to request that they be permitted to do so.2 The most recent of these efforts was on March 7, 2008, when Ruzimatov and Kakabaeva requested the Ministry of National Security permission to travel, and were refused on April 26. No justification was provided. Ruzimatov and Kakabaeva were planning to visit their daughter in Russia who is expecting to give birth.
Svetlana Orazova, sister of exiled opposition leader Khudaiberdy Orazov, is still unable to travel to visit her husband, Ovez Annaev, who has been in Moscow to receive treatment for heart disease. For more than a year Orazova has to leave separately from her husband as she has not been successful in challenging her exit ban in court. The latest court ruling, of April 14, 2008, upholds the ban citing only Turkmenistan’s law on migration and providing no reason why the ban was imposed on her.
The United States should urge the Turkmen government to allow all residents to leave and return to the country without government interference, including Andrey Zatoka, Rashid Ruzimatov, Irina Kakabaeva and Svetlana Orazova.
Right to education
One of Berdymukhamedov’s main pledges was to improve Turkmenistan’s shattered education system. While some of the most egregious policies have been reversed—the 10-year education system has been restored, as has the five-year university system—the overall situation remains dismal. While some reports say that the Academy of Science was restored, there is no indication that it is functioning as an independent institution, and the Council on Science and Technology that took over some of the Academy’s functions is still answerable directly to the president. The Rukhnama, Niazov’s propaganda book, while not studied as intensively as under Niazov, remains a central element of the school curriculum and is still the subject of a required exam for entrance into practically any university course of study.
The United States should urge the Turkmen government to fully realign the Turkmen education system with international standards, which includes academic freedom, and the availability, accessibility, acceptability, and adaptability of primary and secondary education.
The United States is entering an especially intense period of diplomacy with Turkmenistan, driven in part by recent energy developments that are key to US interests. Of no less importance for people in Turkmenistan, however, is to know that US policy is driven not only by energy but also by concern about their freedoms.
We thank you for your attention to the concerns in this letter.
Washington Advocacy Director
Europe and Central Asia Division
1 Pal is not accused of stealing the equipment, but of bearing responsibility, as a department chief, for the missing property.
2 For example, in 2007 Ruzimatov was denied permission to travel to Uzbekistan to attend a memorial for his father.