The death in December 2006 of Turkmenistan’s authoritarian ruler, president-for-life Saparmurad Niazov led to unprecedented interest in this gas-rich Central Asian country from the European Union, Unites States and international organizations. The government under President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov ended the self-imposed international isolation of the Niazov era and has actively engaged foreign partners, notably the intergovernmental organizations and the business community. It has also begun to reverse some of the most ruinous social policies of the Niazov era, has begun to tackle the Niazov’s cult of personality, and has started constitutional reform. However, it remains—as detailed below—one of the most repressive and authoritarian states in the world. Its policies and practices are anathema to European values.
The European Union does not have a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan. The European Parliament has elaborated a useful set of human rights benchmarks that would have to be fulfilled before the EU could proceed with an Interim Trade Agreement with Turkmenistan, a precursor to a PCA. These minimum criteria, adopted by the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee in fall 2006, include:
1. “allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to work freely in Turkmenistan;”
2. “realigning the educational system with international standards;”
3. “releasing all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience,"
4. “abolishing governmental impediments to travel abroad,” and
5. “allowing free access of independent NGOs and permitting the UN human rights bodies to operate freely in the country to monitor such progress.”
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.
European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
The EBRD country strategy on Turkmenistan precludes lending to the government. The EBRD lends only to the private sector, and only when it has ascertained that government officials will not benefit from such lending, either directly or indirectly. This is due to the failure by the government of Turkmenistan not only to develop market economies but to foster pluralism.
European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights highlighted the lack of any possibility for human rights monitoring in Turkmenistan in a June 19, 2008 decision (Ryabikin v Russia), which held that a Turkmen businessman living in Russia could not be extradited to Turkmenistan in part because the authorities systematically refused access by international observers to the country. This, the court concluded, would undermine any undertakings that the applicant would not be at risk of torture and inhumane treatment.
Steps forward by the Turkmen government
Berdymukhamedov has reinstated the 10th year of secondary education, restored the five-year course of university-level education, and ordered some restrictions in the teaching of Rukhanama, Niazov’s “holy book.” He has reinstated pensions and social allowances and allowed the circus and opera to function, all banned by Niazov (ballet, however, remains outlawed). The government issued a long due invitation to one UN human rights monitor, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, who is scheduled to visit the country in September 2008. At least seven other special rapporteurs are still waiting for access.
Continued human rights violations by the Turkmen government
Despite the few positive steps described above, no genuine human rights reform has taken place in Turkmenistan during Berdymukhamedov’s presidency. Draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, movement, religion and belief remain in place in Turkmenistan. Independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media cannot function properly due to government threats and harassment. Domestic and international organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross or intergovernmental agencies, still do not have access to the Turkmen prisons (Human Rights Watch has been denied entry to Turkmenistan since 1999 and to date remains barred from traveling to the country to do in situ research).
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, after spending several months trying to clarify his status, Andrei Zatoka, a well-known environmental activist, received on July 4, 2008 a letter from the Office of the Prosecutor General stating that he is still prohibited from traveling abroad. No explanation was provided.
Hundreds of people, perhaps more, languish in Turkmen prisons after unfair trials on possibly politically motivated charges. Among them are Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, sentenced in 1995 to 15 years of imprisonment on politically motivated charges of anti-state crimes and sentenced again in 1998 to an additional 18 years for allegedly attempting to escape from prison; and 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. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s government has released approximately two dozen people believed to have been imprisoned for political reasons, but has not proposed a nationwide, transparent review of political cases of past years.
During Berdymukhamedov’s presidency, at least two individuals are believed to be prosecuted for political reasons. Valery Pal, a computer engineer who helped other activists use information technology to send information about Turkmenistan to the outside world and participated in a number of human rights projects, was arrested in February 2008, charged with embezzlement in connection with an apparent 2004 theft of printer cartridges and the like and sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment. Gulgeldy Annaniazov, a former political prisoner who lived from 2002 until 2008 in exile in Norway, where he holds refugee status, returned to Ashgabad in spring 2008. Annaniazov was arrested at home without a warrant, has been charged with illegal border crossing (for returning to his own country), which is punishable by up to 10 years of imprisonment.
Berdymukhamedov continued Niazov’s practice of governmental purges. Among former governmental officials imprisoned after unfair trials is Payzgeldy Meredov, former agriculture minister, sentenced in December 2007 for 19 years in prison for embezzlement.
Victims of enforced disappearance
The fate of some of about 50 prisoners convicted in relation to the November 2002 alleged assassination attempt on Niazov—including former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov and Turkmenistan’s former ambassador to OSCE Batyr Berdiev—remains unknown, with their whereabouts not disclosed even to their families. Human Rights Watch is aware of unconfirmed reports that eight defendants in the 2002 plot case have died in detention.
As described above, the minimum preconditions set by the European Parliament have not been fulfilled by Turkmenistan. The EU should only enter the Interim Trade Agreement or authorize any lending to the government when significant improvement in the human rights sphere will be achieved by Turkmen government. That should include releasing political prisoners, starting a transparent nation-wide systemic review of all political cases of past years, abolishing impediments to travel abroad and allowing civil society and international monitors to function without undue interference. All these preconditions are not resource-dependent and can be achieved if the Turkmen government has the required political will. A principled stance by the EU is critical for fostering positive change in Turkmenistan.