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Re: EU Policy toward Turkmenistan

Dear Foreign Minister,

We are writing to urge you to ensure an EU policy toward Turkmenistan that is guided by the imperative to secure concrete human rights improvements.  

Turkmenistan has significant gas reserves, making it an important strategic partner to the European Union. But Turkmenistan also has one of the most repressive governments in the world. The hydrocarbon wealth controlled by this government should not - and need not - eclipse the importance of good governance, government accountability and human rights in the EU's relationship with it.

In the two years since the death of Turkmenistan's president-for-life Saparmurad Niazov, the government under President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has dismantled aspects of Niazov's grotesque personality cult, adopted a new constitution, and begun to reverse some of his predecessor's most ruinous social policies. But these initiatives, while positive, should not be confused with genuine human rights reform. To date the government has taken no significant steps to improve the human rights situation, which remains abysmal.

Against this backdrop it is crucial that the European Union make human rights protection a core component of its relationship with Turkmenistan, raising with the Turkmen leadership serious concern about the state of human rights in the country, paying special attention to individual cases, and urging specific steps to address them.

We would like to stress that such an approach should not be seen as an impediment for engagement, as some have suggested, but rather as a means to ensure that EU engagement serves to promote concrete improvements in human rights. Making clear that human rights and the rule of law are core values underpinning all aspects of EU policy towards Turkmenistan - including in energy security considerations - would make a crucial contribution toward efforts to render Turkmenistan a more suitable partner for enhanced relations.

We understand that such enhanced relations are currently under consideration, including specifically the possible conclusion of an Interim Trade Agreement (ITA) and the holding of a full-fledged Partnership and Cooperation Council (PCC) with Turkmenistan, possibly as soon as in March 2009. These concrete prospects of upgraded relations provide the EU with a unique window of opportunity to push for positive change.  We hope to see the EU make full use of this crucial leverage, by articulating clearly and publicly the specific human rights improvements it expects from the Turkmen government in exchange for enhanced relations with the EU, and engaging proactively in this crucial lead-up period to help secure their fulfilment.

As you no doubt are aware, such specific human rights improvements for the Turkmen government to fufill have already been formulated by the European Parliament in two separate resolutions. The European Parliament benchmarks cut right into some of the most pressing concerns that mar Turkmenistan's human rights record and their advancement should be integrated into all EU dialogues with Turkmenistan.

Below we provide an overview of key human rights concerns in Turkmenistan and put forward specific steps the Turkmen government should be urged to take as part of its ongoing dialogue with the EU.  See this link for more information about Human Rights Watch's work and concerns on Turkmenistan.  

Political prisoners

Hundreds of people, perhaps more, languish in Turkmen prisons following unfair trials on what would appear to be politically motivated charges-with at least two such prosecutions having taken place during Berdymukhamedov's rule. The harsh repression that prevents civic activism impedes determining the exact number of political prisoners. Only two individuals believed to be imprisoned for political reasons were released in 2008, one of whom having served his full prison term. Well-known Niazov-era political prisoners, including Mukhmetkuli Aimuradov, Annakurban Amanklychev, and Sapardurdy Khajiev remain behind bars, the latter two in incommunicado detention. Gulgeldy Annaniazov, a former dissident who had refugee status in Norway, returned to Ashgabat in June and was promptly arrested and charged with illegal border crossing. On October 7, he was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment; the exact charges are unknown. The fate of about 50 prisoners implicated in the alleged November 2002 attack on Niazov's life remains unknown, as do the whereabouts of a number of former government officials who became the subject of the notorious, Niazov-era government purges.

  • Release political prisoners, including Gulgeldy Annaniazov, Annakurban Amanklychev, Sapardurdy Khajiev and Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, and;
  • Initiate a nationwide, transparent review of political cases of past years in order to establish the real number of political prisoners, and begin to provide them with justice.

Civil society operations and access for independent human rights monitors

Draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, movement, and religion remain in place. Independent activists and journalists in Turkmenistan and in exile are under constant threat of government reprisal for their work. Particularly worrying have been the reports of intensifying pressure on several Radio Free Europe correspondents and their family members in recent months. No independent organization has been permitted to carry out research on human rights inside the country, and no independent agency, governmental or nongovernmental-including the International Committee of the Red Cross-has had access to detention facilities (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). In September 2008, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion became the first ever UN special rapporteur to access the country, but at least nine other UN special procedures remain unable to visit Turkmenistan due to the government's failure to extend the necessary invitations.

  • Allow activists and civic groups to operate freely and without fear of persecution, and ensure access to the country for independent human rights monitors, and;
  • Issue standing invitations to all UN special procedures and respond positively, without any further delay, to the nine special procedures that have requested access. [1]

Restrictions on travel

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. Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases in which individuals were barred from travel in 2008 alone.

  • Lift informal travel bans imposed on activists and relatives of opposition members and to dismantle the system that allows for government interference with residents' ability to leave and return to Turkmenistan.


Torture remains a major concern, compounded by the complete lack of access to detention facilities for independent monitors and the overall vacuum of human rights monitoring in the country. In a July 2008 decision (Komarovski v. Turkmenistan), the UN Human Rights Committee found that in the aftermath of the alleged November 2002 attack the authorities flagrantly abused the justice process and failed to investigate and prosecute torture and arbitrary detention of suspects. The government so far has taken no action to implement the decision. The utter lack of a system to prevent torture and ill-treatment in Turkmenistan prompted the European Court of Human Rights to issue a ruling in October 2008 (Soldatenko v. Ukraine) amounting to a de facto ban on extraditions or deportations to the country.  

  • Immediately disclose the whereabouts of all detainees, including those detained in connection with the alleged November 2002 attack on Niazov's life, and allow access to them for family members and independent monitors;
  • Implement, as a matter of urgent priority, the July 2008 decision of the UN Human Rights Committee and recommendations made by other international monitoring bodies pertaining to torture;
  • Allow access to places of detention for independent monitors, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Special Rapporteur on torture.

In pursuing its policy dialogue with Turkmenistan, we believe it important that the EU build in the outcome of the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which Turkmenistan underwent in December 2008. A number of EU member states used the review to voice serious concerns about a range of issues and address specific recommendations to the Turkmen government. While the Turkmen government accepted a number of these recommendations - including acting against any form of harassment and intimidation of journalists, ensuring an effective freedom of worship of all religious communities, and taking effective measures to allow NGOs to register and work freely, it merely undertook to "consider" many others, including allowing access to the country for UN special procedures, ICRC and other independent monitors, protecting human rights defenders from persecution, liberalizing media and ending torture in places of detention.

The Turkmen government furthermore regrettably chose to outright reject a number of recommendations made during the UPR, considered by human rights experts, both local and international, as being among those most pressing to address, such as the release of political prisoners, a transparent review of the political cases of past years, and the lifting of travel bans on human rights defenders.  We encourage you to help ensure adequate follow up on all of these recommendations by making them an integral part of the EU's ongoing dialogue with Ashgabat.

We firmly believe that EU engagement with Turkmenistan, if pursued in a principled, consistent manner, offers the best prospect for securing meaningful rights improvements in the areas highlighted above. We urge you to seize this rare opportunity and ensure an EU policy that seeks concrete results and has at its core the lives of those who have no hope but for principled EU action to protect them.

Thank you for your attention.


Holly Cartner                                                                                                   


Europe and Central Asia Division

Lotte Leicht

EU Director

[1] The nine special procedures are: the Special Rapporteurs on torture, on human rights defenders, on health, on education, on the independence of judges and lawyers, on freedom of expression, on violence against women, and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, as well as the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

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