Dear President Berdymukhamedov,
For more than two years since you came to office, the international community has watched for signs that the government of Turkmenistan would break with the repressive practices that characterized the rule of Saparmurad Niazov. During this time, your government has received due credit for releasing a number of political prisoners, allowing several other individuals to travel abroad, and reversing the most ruinous social policies of the Niazov era. It is difficult to underestimate the importance of these steps. But it is also difficult to underestimate how important it is to end repressive policies that have carried over from the Niazov era and continue to mar Turkmenistan's human rights record. I am writing to urge you to lead your government to make these changes.
The December 2008 review of Turkmenistan by the United Nations Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) indicated the direction this change should take. The Council raised a range of concerns about continued repression; the full set of its initial recommendations, if fulfilled, would provide a solid foundation for countering the practices of the past. Your government accepted a number of UPR recommendations - including acting against any form of harassment and intimidation of journalists, ensuring effective freedom of worship for all religious communities, and taking effective measures to allow nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register and work freely. But your government undertook only to "consider" many others, including "allowing access to the country for UN special procedures, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other independent monitors, . . .protecting human rights defenders from persecution and guaranteeing their right to work freely, . . .adopting all necessary measures for the liberalization and plurality of the media, . . . ending the practice of governmental appointment of editors to all media outlets, removing restrictions on the ability of the journalists to report and criticize government policy, and ending torture in places of detention." Regrettably, it also chose to outright reject a number of other recommendations, such as the release of political prisoners, a transparent review of the political cases of past years, holding an independent inquiry into the death in prison of journalist Ogulsapar Muradova, and the lifting of travel bans on human rights defenders. We urge you to reconsider these positions and accept and fully implement all recommendations adopted by the UPR.
The systemic reform needed to break with the past will take time, but the initiative for change must come urgently. Moreover, some human rights problems can be resolved immediately. These problems, and steps the government should take to overcome them, are outlined below.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that your government so far has not taken decisive action to end unjustified and disproportional restrictions on freedom of expression, association, movement, religion and belief.
One of the surest signs that the government is not fulfilling its international law obligations on freedom of expression and association is that independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media cannot operate openly, if at all. Human Rights Watch is aware of instances when independent activists and journalists were subjects to threats and harassment by security services. (In order to protect the identity and security of those targeted, we are withholding the details about these incidents.) This intimidation can only serve to discourage independent civic activism.
In addition, burdensome requirements for the registration of NGOs remain. Among them is the requirement to have support from a governmental agency, which violates the right to freedom of association. To the best of our knowledge, in 2007 and 2008 several organizations applied unsuccessfully for registration and the only independent NGO that has been registered in last two years is an association of gardeners.
Freedom of religion
Excessive restrictions on the right to freedom of religion in Turkmenistan are of serious international concern. Forum 18, an international non-governmental news service, reported that in 2008 at least six Jehovah's Witnesses were variously beaten, threatened with rape, fined and had religious literature confiscated from them. One woman was threatened with incarceration in a psychiatric hospital if she did not stop complaining to the authorities about harassment she endured for being a Jehovah's Witness adherent. In June, police detained another female Jehovah's Witness and threatened to rape her to stop her from studying the Bible. She was held overnight and freed the following day only after she had being forced to clean the police station. According to Forum 18, four other Jehovah's Witnesses were beaten and fined in May after refusing a demand made by police and security services to declare: "I am a Muslim."
The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who visited Turkmenistan in September 2008, stated in her report that "although the situation has much improved since 2007, individuals and religious communities, both registered and unregistered, remain under close scrutiny and still face a number of difficulties when manifesting their freedom of religion or belief." The special rapporteur raised concerns "about the imposition of legal or policy restrictions by the authorities of Turkmenistan on registration, places of worship, religious material, religious education and proselytism." She issued several recommendations to your government, including: "removing from legislation the prohibition on unregistered religious activities and undue restrictions on religious material, education and attire as well as ceasing obstruction with regard to the building, opening, renting or use of places of worship by religious communities."
Freedom of Movement
To its credit, your government abolished the system of special permits previously required for residents of Turkmenistan who wished to travel in border areas of Turkmenistan. Human Rights Watch is also aware of at least nine individuals who were on so-called exit ban lists during the Niazov era but whom your government has allowed to travel abroad. But reports persist that dozens of others continue to face arbitrary restrictions on travel abroad. While these individuals have not received any official explanation of the reasons why they may not travel abroad, it appears that they were banned due to their own civic activism or due to their status as relatives of exiled civic and political activists. In the appendix to this letter, Human Rights Watch lists some individuals who to our knowledge are not allowed to leave Turkmenistan.
Human Rights Watch has publicly welcomed the release of approximately twenty people-believed to have been imprisoned for political reasons-in pardons granted in 2007. However, we remain concerned that during the Niazov era untold numbers of people may have been imprisoned for political reasons, yet the government has given no indication that it would undertake a nationwide, transparent review to indentify such cases and provide effective remedies to individuals who may have been unjustly prosecuted.
While a nationwide review would require time to conceptualize and implement, a commitment to such a process can be achieved immediately. No less urgent is the need to release from prison those individuals whose criminal prosecution is believed to have been politically motivated. These include Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, Annakurban Amanklychev, and Sapardurdy Khajiev; whose cases are detailed in the appendix to this letter. The appendix also includes information about two individuals whose arrest and imprisonment since you came to office appear to be politically motivated: the most prominent example is Gulgeldy Annaniazov, who was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment on unknown charges and has been held incommunicado since his arrest in June 2008. Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the reported critical health conditions of Gulgeldy Annaniazov and Mukhametkuli Aymuradov.
Your government has not yet responded to calls by international organizations to disclose the information about the fate and whereabouts of about 50 prisoners implicated in the alleged November 2002 attack on Niazov's life, including former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, his brother Konstantin Shikhmuradov, and the former ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Batyr Berdiev. The lack of essential information about these individuals - whether they alive and where they are held - render these cases of enforced disappearance, prohibited by international law.
As noted above, Human Rights Watch remains concerned about unknown numbers of other prisoners who may continue to be held for political reasons in Turkmen prisons. Because of the lack of transparency in the Turkmen justice system, including closed trials and the absence of independent media reporting, it is impossible to arrive at a reliable number of political prisoners or evaluate the legitimacy of the charges laid against them. Human Rights Watch believes that the only way to resolve these outstanding issues is to establish a nationwide process involving an impartial review of criminal charges laid against political figures and dissidents, an evaluation of the fairness of criminal proceedings in such cases, and reparations for violations of human rights where appropriate, including all cases of illegal or arbitrary detention.
Violent clashes in September 2008
The scarcity of official information surrounding the violent clashes that brought special forces and armored vehicles to the streets of Ashgabad's Khitrovka neighborhood in September last year makes it very difficult to assess the purpose of the operation and whether it was carried out with due respect for human rights. One of the two people implicated in the clashes, Khudaiberdy Amandurdyev, was among the so-called "Ashgabat Eight" who were imprisoned in 1995 for organizing a peaceful demonstration held in Ashgabat that year. The violence appears to be prompted by alleged police mistreatment of Amandurdyev's wife. Your government has not yet published information about whether any investigation of the September clashes is taking place, and whether there have been any allegations of excessive use of police force, of torture, or any other abuses by police, and if so whether they are elements covered in any investigation.
Redress for torture: implementing a decision of the UN Human Rights Committee
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Turkmenistan acceded in 1997, unconditionally prohibits torture, guarantees the right to fair trial and obligates states parties to provide victims with effective remedies. Turkmenistan is also a state party to the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows those who allege that their rights have been violated by the government of Turkmenistan to submit complaints to the UN Human Rights Committee, and imposes the obligation on every state party to implement the decisions of the Committee.
As you are aware, the UN Human Rights Committee adopted its first decision on Turkmenistan on July 24, 2008. In this case (Komarovski v Turkmenistan) the committee found that flagrant abuse of justice and failure to investigate and prosecute torture and arbitrary detention had taken place in the aftermath of the alleged 2002 attack on Saparmurad Niazov's life. The committee established that Turkmenistan breached several rights of Leonid Komarovski, one of those accused in alleged attack, including his right to personal liberty and protection from torture.
The committee ruled that Turkmenistan must provide Komarovski with an effective remedy and, to that effect, take appropriate steps to prosecute and punish the persons responsible for the violations, provide Komarovski with appropriate reparation, including compensation and a public retraction of a false statement by the government about Komarovski. The committee also highlighted Turkmenistan's obligation to take measures to prevent similar violations in the future.
To date we are not aware of any steps that your government has taken to comply with this ruling. This first ruling against Turkmenistan is a critical symbol of your government's willingness to comply with its international human rights obligations, and we urge you to implement this ruling immediately and in full.
Access for human rights monitors
In a recent positive move, your government granted access to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief so that she could conduct a visit to Turkmenistan in September 2008, but at least nine other UN special procedures do not have access, despite longstanding requests for an invitation from your government. The UN special mandate holders who requested invitations include the special rapporteurs and special representatives of the secretary general on torture, on education, on health, on human rights defenders, on independence of judges and lawyers, on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and on violence against women and the Working Group on arbitrary detention. Extending a standing invitation to UN human rights special procedures, as many states have done, is a simple to way to resolve this problem.
To the best of our knowledge, no independent nongovernmental human rights monitors have been allowed to visit Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is one of very few countries in the world that has not allowed access to Human Rights Watch. Since 1999, when were last able to visit Turkmenistan and meet with government officials and victims of human rights abuses, we have unsuccessfully requested access numerous times. Our most recent request was in a May 2008 letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, which has gone unanswered.
Human Rights Watch hopes you will exercise leadership to ensure that your government commits to human rights reform. We urge you to accept and implemental all the recommendations of the Universal Period Review of the UN Human Rights Council. We ask that you take immediate action to rectify the most blatant human rights abuses in Turkmenistan and ensure that similar violations do not happen in the future. These actions include:
- Release all those imprisoned for political reasons. These would include Gulgeldy Annaniazov, Annakurban Amanklychev, Sapardurdy Khajiev, Mukhametkuli Aymuradov. Provide them with effective remedy including compensation.
- Disclose the whereabouts of Boris Shikhmuradov, Konstantin Shikhmuradov, Batyr Berdiev, and others convicted for their alleged involvement in the 2002 attack on Niazov. Review their cases in a transparent way with international observers present and release them pending such review.
- Establish a nationwide process to ensure a remedy for victims of injustice during Niazov's presidency that would involve impartial review of criminal charges laid against political figures and dissidents, the fairness of criminal proceedings in such cases, and, where appropriate, reparations for violations of human rights.
- Abolish any bans on travel abroad for Turkmen citizens, including Andrey Zatoka, Svetlana Orazova, Ovez Annaev, Rashid Ruzimatov, Irina Kakabaeva, Shageldy Atakov and his family, Sazak Begmedov, Ilmyrat Nurliev, children and other relatives of Ogulsapar Muradova and Gulgeldy Annaniazov as well as relatives of other dissidents and activists.
- Allow independent NGOs to work without government interference, and ease registration requirements, beginning with abolishing the requirement that NGOs secure the support of a government agency.
- Allow independent media outlets to function without interference.
- Implement the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, including by:
- o Removing from legislation the prohibition on unregistered religious activities and undue restrictions on religious material, education and attire;
- o Ceasing obstructions with regard to the building, opening, renting and use of places of worship;
- o Ensuring representation of religious minorities in the Council of Religious Affairs and changing its functions to become a facilitation and not monitoring mechanism;
- o Initiating reforms in the judiciary to offer effective legal means of redress and compensation for denial of fundamental freedoms;
- o Offering an alternative civilian service for those who refuse to perform military service owing to their religious beliefs;
- o Providing law enforcement officials and representatives of local authorities with adequate training in order to raise awareness about international human rights standards.
- Allow an independent investigation into the September 2008 clashes in Ashgabad's Khitrovka neighborhood that could assess allegations of torture and determine whether the use of force was proportional, and lead to prosecutions of those responsible for crimes.
- Promptly extend invitations to the thematic special procedures of the United Nations that have requested visits to Turkmenistan, including the special rapporteurs and special representatives of the secretary general on torture, on education, on health, on human rights defenders, on independence of judges and lawyers, on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and on violence against women and the Working Group on arbitrary detention.
- Extend a standing invitation to all the United Nations thematic special procedures.
- Allow independent human rights, environmental, election monitoring, and rule of law promotion groups as well as organizations working to protect the interests of vulnerable groups to visit Turkmenistan and conduct their work unhampered and without reprisals against those with whom they come into contact.
- Fully comply with the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee Komarovski v Turkmenistan and prevent similar violations happening in the future, including by
- o investigating and prosecuting anyone responsible for torture and ill-treatment of the defendants in 2002 alleged attack against President Niazov;
- o providing Komarovski and other victims of similar abuses with appropriate reparation, including compensation.
I thank you for your attention to these urgent concerns.
Europe and Central Asia division
Cc: Meret Orazov, Ambassador of Turkmenistan to the United States
Individuals who should be immediately released
Gulgeldy Annaniazov is a former political prisoner who from 2002 until 2008 lived in exile in Norway, where he holds refugee status. Upon his return to Ashgabad in spring 2008, he said he hoped to "help his fatherland to improve its education and public health." Annaniazov returned to Turkmenistan on June 23, 2008 and was arrested the next day at home without a warrant, was allegedly charged with illegal border crossing (for returning to his own country) and sentenced on October 7, 2008 to 11 years of imprisonment. His family does not have information on the exact charges against him, has not been allowed to visit him since his arrest in June, and was not informed about the time and place of his trial.
Annaniazov was first arrested in 1995 and was among a group of men, known as the "Ashgabad Eight," imprisoned at that time for organizing a peaceful demonstration in Ashgabad calling for democratic reform in Turkmenistan. The authorities sentenced Annaniazov and his co-defendants to prison terms ranging up to 15 years. While imprisoned, Annaniazov's health deteriorated due to the harsh prison conditions. He was released in 1999 under an amnesty, and left the country in 2002.
Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev
Annakurban Amanklychev, Sapardurdy Khajiev, and Ogulsapar Muradova were affiliated with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation-a human rights group based in exile in Bulgaria. In June 2006 police in Ashgabad arrested the three. In public statements, the security services cited Amanklychev's participation in human rights trainings in Poland and Ukraine and his work with British and French journalists who visited Turkmenistan to justify his arrest. In August 2006, a court sentenced Amanklychev, Khajiev, and Muradova in a closed trial to prison terms ranging from six to seven years on bogus charges of "illegal weapons possession." Ogulsapar Muradova died in custody in September 2006 under suspicious circumstances.
Still incarcerated is the country's longest serving political prisoner,
Mukhametkuli Aymuradov. In 1995, a court sentenced Aymuradov to 12 years' imprisonment on trumped-up charges of anti-state crimes, including "attempted terrorism." In 1998, he was sentenced to an additional 18 years' imprisonment in connection with an alleged prison escape attempt. Aymuradov has very limited contact with his family, and is reported to be in very poor health.
Individuals whose cases should be transparently reviewed and who should be released pending such review.
Boris Shikhmuradov, Batyr Berdiev and other defendants of 2002 alleged attack on President's Niazov life
The fate of some 50 prisoners convicted in relation to the November 2002 alleged assassination attempt on Niazov-including former foreign minister Boris
Shikhmuradov, his brother Konstantin 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 case have died in detention.
Former governmental officials and their relatives
Ovezgeldy Ataev, the chairman of the legislature at the time of Niazov's death and the constitutionally designated successor as interim president, was removed from succession due to criminal charges brought against him. The prosecutor general declared on December 22, 2006-the day after Niazov's death was made public-that Ataev had been found guilty of driving his stepson's fiancée to attempt suicide. Various reports said he was sentenced in February 2007 to either four or five years' imprisonment.
Other notable examples of former governmental officials whose imprisonment may have been politically motivated are Yolly Gurbanmuradov, the deputy oil and gas minister who was dismissed in May 2005 and later sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment on charges of corruption and links with foreign intelligence services, and five other high-level oil and gas ministry officials dismissed and arrested in 2005: Saparmammet Velyiev (or Valiyev), Ilyas Charyev, Orazmukhammed Atageldiev, Guichmurad Esenov, and Guichnazar Tachnazarov. There is no clarity as to whether they are still in custody.
Individuals barred from traveling abroad
On July 4, 2008, Andrei Zatoka, a well-known environmental activist, received a letter from the Office of the General Prosecutor stating that he remains prohibited from traveling abroad. The letter did not provide any explanation for this restriction.
On April 14, 2008, a court once again upheld a travel ban against Svetlana Orazova, sister of exiled political opposition leader Khudaiberdy Orazov. The court provided no reason for the restriction, citing only Turkmenistan's law on migration. In June, Orazova's husband, Ovez Annaev, was barred from boarding a return flight from Turkmenistan to Moscow, where he had traveled to seek medical treatment. A migration officer informed Annaev that authorities had imposed a travel ban on him, without providing any further explanation.
A number of individuals remain barred from international travel:
- Rashid Ruzimatov and Irina Kakabaeva have been barred from travelling since 2003. Ruzimatov and Kakabaeva have made repeated written requests to officials requesting permission to travel and an explanation of the ban. To date, officials have failed to produce a satisfactory answer and the travel restrictions remain in place.
- In October 2008, the daughter of imprisoned Gulgeldy Annaniazov and her family were not allowed to leave Turkmenistan.
- Still banned from international travel are relatives of Ogulsapar Muradova.
- Sazak Begmedov (the father of Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation), a former prosecutor, was forcibly resettled from Ashgabat to Dashoguz in 2003, where he remains. He is also prohibited from traveling abroad.
- Shageldy Atakov, an active Baptist, who was prevented from leaving Turkmenistan in May 2006 and June 2007, and his family.
- Artygul Atakova, Atakov's wife, and six of her children are reported to have been barred from leaving Turkmenistan in June last year. All seven had tickets for a flight to Russia, where she was due to undergo medical treatment. Although their tickets and documents were in order, all seven were refused permission to check in and board the flight at Ashgabad airport. When her husband asked for a written explanation of why she and the children were barred from travelling, officials responded: "The [security services] have given us an order not to allow you and your family out of the country."
- Ilmyrat Nurliev, a Turkmen Evangelical Church pastor, was barred from travel to Ukraine in April 2008.
Pressure on journalists
There were several cases of pressure on journalists in Turkmenistan who were cooperating with foreign media. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a U.S. government -funded outlet, reported their correspondents' telephone lines were disconnected during the December 2008 parliamentary elections. The same month, a correspondent working for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Dovletmurat Yazguliev, was interrogated and threatened by state security officers. RFE/RL reported that Yazguliev and his wife were summoned to a local government office where secret service officers and local government officials questioned them. He told RFE/RL that his news stories and reports focused on social issues in Turkmenistan's eastern Akhal Province, that local authorities were unhappy with some of his reports, and that he was told to stop working for RFE/RL.
 Several sources in exile and inside the country told Human Rights Watch that the police search for Amandurdyev, which appears to have eventually triggered the clashes, started after Gulgeldy Annaniazov - another of the "Ashgabat Eight," - returned to Ashgabat from Norway, where he had received refugee status, and was arrested in June.