Human Rights Watch welcomes the EU consultations process with civil society convened by the Slovenian Presidency in advance of the June 24, 2008 EU-Turkmenistan human rights dialogue. We consider it a valuable opportunity for highlighting and addressing urgent human rights concerns in one of the most repressive countries in the region. In order for the human rights dialogue to live up to its fullest potential, we believe that specific benchmarks for human rights progress should be formulated, and that their advancement be made an integral part of all aspects of the EU’s relationship with Turkmenistan, including at the highest levels.
The European Parliament has elaborated a useful set of benchmarks. In fall 2006, the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee adopted a number of minimum criteria that would have to be fulfilled before the EU could proceed with an Interim Trade Agreement with Turkmenistan. These criteria include:
- “allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to work freely in Turkmenistan;”
- “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 the UN human rights bodies to operate freely in the country to monitor such progress.”
Several months later, Turkmenistan’s president-for-life Saparmurat Niazov died. Following his death, the Turkmen government under Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov began to reverse some of the ruinous social policies and to dismantle the cult of personality that characterized Niazov’s rule. But Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive and authoritarian countries in the world. Accordingly, on February 18, 2008 the European Parliament as a whole endorsed the 2006 benchmarks. Since then, there have been no significant improvements in Turkmenistan’s human rights record. In fact, Human Rights Watch has received reports from credible sources that following the April 9, 2008 EU troika meeting in Ashgabat, government pressure on human rights activists has intensified, including on Turkmen activists in exile.
Yet on May 27, 2008, the EU signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Energy Cooperation with Turkmenistan, signifying a partnership to develop Turkmenistan’s gas fields. While not equivalent to an Interim Trade Agreement in name, this marked an important step towards economic integration. The memorandum, meanwhile, made no reference to human rights or any of the benchmarks the European Parliament had set. The EU should make up for this missed opportunity and use its energy partnership to send a strong message about the importance of human rights as a core element underpinning all its relations with third countries, and advance concrete progress in the areas identified by the European Parliament as it proceeds with negotiations.
In a paper published in November 2007, Human Rights Watch examined the Turkmen government’s progress in some of the areas covered by the European Parliament’s benchmarks. The paper documented the draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, movement, religion and belief that remain in place in Turkmenistan. The present submission summarizes and updates that paper.
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 all such 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. Mukhametkuli Aimuradov, the country’s longest serving political prisoner, was sentenced in 1995 to a 12 year sentence on trumped-up charges of anti-state crimes. Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, both of whom 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 illustrated in more detail 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 (CDUT), a Turkmen human rights group in exile, Pal was arrested in February 2008 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, 2008, to 12 years of imprisonment on embezzlement charges. Although his sentence did not include confiscation of property, on June 16 the police came to Pal’s apartment and, without presenting a court order to his family, confiscated furniture and other household items. Pal’s appeal hearing was scheduled for June 17. According to CDUT, when Pal’s defense lawyer arrived at court, the court’s chair informed him that the court had already heard the appeal on June 10 and upheld the initial verdict. Pal’s lawyer received no notification of the changed appeals hearing, and as of June 20 has still not seen the appellate court verdict.
Four factors point to a political motivation for Pal’s 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, none of the objections and petitions of the defense lawyer were taken into account by the court; Pal’s wife was allegedly told by the investigator at the beginning of the investigation that her husband will be a “scapegoat.” Finally, as noted below, pressure on activists like Pal in Turkmenistan continues. Amnesty International has designated Pal as a possible prisoner of conscience.
The European Union should urge Turkmen authorities to immediately release Mukhametkuli Aimuradov, Sapardurdy Khajiev and Annakurban Amanklychev, and to start a nation-wide process of review of possible politically motivated cases of past years. It should also call for the immediate release of Valery Pal and for the return of his family property.
Restrictions on NGO activities and human rights monitoring
The past year saw a number of international visits to Turkmenistan, 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. 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 a government 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.
After the EU meeting in Ashgabat the pressure on activists and dissidents intensified, including those in exile. Annadurdy Khajiev, a Turkmen dissident in exile in Bulgaria, reported to Human Rights Watch that an unknown person called him on April 16, 2008. The person, who spoke with a Turkmen accent and refused to introduce himself, proposed to Khajiev that in exchange for him stopping his activities one of his brothers would be released from prison. Khajiev proposed instead to initiate an open investigation of his own case and criminal cases against his brothers. The same person called back two or three days later and informed Khajiev that their conversation was reported to the higher-up officials “in detail, describing even your intonations.”
In mid-April 2008 another activist in exile was approached by a Turkmen diplomat urging him to stop criticism of the Turkmen government, in particular the president, in exchange for some favors to his family.
The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (operating out ofAustria) reported that in spring 2008 Turkmen special services intensified pressure against Andrey Zatoka, a well-known environmental activist living in Turkmenistan.
The European Union should urge the government of Turkmenistan to stop the pressure on local activists and those in exile and to allow national and international organizations to conduct human rights monitoring, including through effective access to places of detention.
Freedom of movement
While some individuals have been permitted to travel abroad, the system of restrictions on foreign travel inherited from the Niazov era remains in place, and people continue to be arbitrarily forbidden from traveling.
For example, three months after he requested permission to travel to abroad, Andrey Zatoka, a well-known environmental activist, was told in February 2008 that he was banned from travel for reasons that were not explained to him. In an April 2008 letter to the minister of national security, Zatoka requested that he either be allowed to travel abroad or that the authorities specify the grounds on which he is being forbidden from traveling abroad. In a subsequent discussion with a Ministry of National Security official, he was assured that the ban would be lifted. Nevertheless, on June 1 Zatoka was not allowed to travel to Moscow, where he planned to attend an environmental conference. The Migration Service subsequently refused to provide an explanation, instead referring him to the Ministry of National Security.
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 was expecting to give birth.
Svetlana Orazova, sister of exiled opposition leader Khudaiberdy Orazov, is still subject to an exit ban and unable to travel despite repeated attempts to challenge it in court. The latest court ruling, on April 14, 2008, upholds the ban citing only Turkmenistan’s law on migration and provides no reason for the ban’s imposition in the first place. As a result, for more than a year she was unable to visit her husband, Ovez Annaev, who was in Moscow to receive treatment for heart disease. Annaev finally traveled to Turkmenistan for a visit in June 2008, only to be barred from boarding his return flight to Moscow on June 15. The only explanation provided to Annaev by a migration service officer at the airport was that a travel ban had been imposed by law-enforcement bodies.
The European Union 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, Svetlana Orazova and Ovez Annaev.
In June new internet connections became available for individual subscribers. This has contributed to improved access to the internet but internet freedom remains severely restricted. Human Rights Watch received reports from different sources that the rise in internet connections and in the number of internet cafes might be directly linked to the fact that Turkmenistan’s security services finally put into place a system for internet surveillance throughout the country and by all providers.3
According to experts who spoke confidentially with Human Rights Watch, most internet filters installed by the security services intercept encrypted messages, and their senders can be identified. Unencrypted messages containing key words, such as the president’s name, are reported to be intercepted as well.
There are also cases which indicate that the authorities are particularly targeting civic activists and journalists from having unmonitored access to the internet. Activists reported that there was an instruction to relevant ministries and services to identify all correspondents writing for international media and websites, and to limit their internet access. Since April 2008, at least one activist’s access to an alternative server, i.e., not Turkmentelecom, was blocked, so that now he can only use a fully monitored Turkmentelecom line. An officer from the ministry of national security asked another activist in spring 2008 to provide information on how technically, in the context of a controlled internet, journalists still manage to send their information abroad.
An exiled Turkmen telecommunications expert told Human Rights Watch in June 2008 that automatic internet surveillance has been used in Turkmenistan at least since 2006. All incoming and outgoing information by Turkmentelecom and currently allegedly MTS servers can be placed automatically on the security services’ hard drives. While in 2006 correspondence was controlled mostly within the territory of the country’s capital Ashgabat, now all regions are within the reach of the control system.
The European Union should urge Turkmen government to stop unlawful interference with internet freedom.
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 European Union 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.
Berdymukhamedov is planning constitutional reform to increase the president’s term of office from five to seven years and to turn the legislative body (Mejlis) into a more traditional parliament. While the latter could contribute to increased transparency of government policies, it remains to be seen whether President Berdymukhamedov has the political will to make the amendment. Constitutional reform could be seen as a further step towards de-Niazovization. Nevertheless, it cannot be relied on to solve Turkmenistan’s egregious human rights problems in the absence of strong political will and sustained encouragement from Turkmenistan’s international partners, combined with principled conditionality.
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.
3 An exiled Turkmen telecommunications expert told Human Rights Watch that in 2005, Turkmentelecom planned to open a state-run internet cafes, but was able to do so only in 2007, when state funds to purchase computer equipment was allocated. All content at Turkmentelecom internet cafes is monitored and controlled, and each user is obligated to register his or her name and provide identification. Meanwhile, all content is monitored by the state.