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Human Rights Watch Concerns and Recommendations on Turkmenistan

Submitted in advance of the June 3, 2009 EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue

Human Rights Watch welcomes the EU consultations process with civil society convened by the Czech Presidency in advance of the June 3, 2009 EU-Turkmenistan human rights dialogue. We hope that EU representatives will use the valuable opportunity the dialogue represents to ask for concrete and tangible human rights improvements in one of the most repressive countries in the world.

In addition to the concerns highlighted in this submission, we urge the European Union to monitor and react to the possible human rights violations in the lead-up period and during the dialogue itself. In 2008, Human Rights Watch received reports from credible sources that following the April 9, 2008 EU troika meeting in Ashgabad, government pressure on human rights activists intensified, including on Turkmen activists in exile. As you are aware, dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov was arrested after returning from exile to Turkmenistan on June 24, 2008-the very day when the EU-Turkmenistan human rights dialogue was taking place. Yet the EU did not publicly condemn his arrest.

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. These benchmarks should be made public, as should the outcomes of the dialogues. The European Parliament's April 2009 resolution on Turkmenistan and the outcome report of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review provide useful guidance for formulating such benchmarks.

The European Parliament in its April 22, 2009 resolution on the Interim Trade Agreement with Turkmenistan highlighted a number of priority areas where improvements are urgently needed, including:

  • unconditional release of all political prisoners;
  • removal of all obstacles to free travel;
  • free access for independent monitors, including the International Committee of the Red Cross;
  • improvements in civil liberties, including for NGOs and the ability of civil society to develop free from undue government interference;
  • freedom of religion; and
  • open and democratic elections.

These priority areas are consistent with the recommendations flowing from the December 2008 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Turkmenistan by the United Nations Human Rights Council, during which a range of concerns about continued repression in Turkmenistan were raised. The Turkmen government accepted a number of the 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 the government merely undertook 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." It also chose to outright reject a number of key 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. 

  • The European Union should urge the Turkmen authorities to fully implement all recommendations made during the Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Council. 

Fundamental freedoms

The Turkmen government so far has not taken decisive action to end unjustified and disproportional restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, movement, and religion and belief.

Independent NGOs and media cannot operate openly, if at all in Turkmenistan. As we noted in advance of last year's EU-Turkmenistan human rights dialogue, Human Rights Watch is aware of numerous instances in which independent activists and journalists were subjected to threats and harassment by security services. In one recent incident, in spring 2009, customs officials searched two civil society activists for nearly two hours at Ashgabad airport before allowing the activists to board a flight abroad. The officials, who stated they had an order to search the activists, temporarily confiscated their USB drives.

In addition, burdensome requirements for the registration of NGOs remain in place. 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 the last two years is an association of gardeners. 


The European Union should urge the Turkmen authorities to:

  • 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; and
  • Allow independent media outlets to function without interference.

Freedom of religion

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 the Turkmen 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."

Excessive restrictions on the right to freedom of religion remain in Turkmenistan. 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 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."

Despite the special rapporteur's recommendation, to date no alternative civilian service to compulsory military service exists. According to Forum 18, at least three members of Jehovah's Witnesses are serving suspended sentences for refusing to take part in active military service: Begench Shakhmuradov (sentenced in 2007), Vladimir Golosenko (sentenced in 2008) and Zafar Abdullaev (sentenced on April 9, 2009).

The European Union should urge Turkmen authorities to implement all recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, including by:

  • Removing from legislation the prohibition on unregistered religious activities and undue restrictions on religious material, education, and attire;
  • Ceasing obstructions with regard to the building, opening, renting, and use of places of worship;
  • Ensuring representation of religious minorities in the Council of Religious Affairs and changing its functions to become a facilitation and not monitoring mechanism;
  • Initiating reforms in the judiciary to offer effective legal means of redress and compensation for denial of fundamental freedoms;
  • Offering an alternative civilian service for those who refuse to perform military service owing to their religious beliefs; and
  • Providing law enforcement officials and representatives of local authorities with adequate training in order to raise awareness about international human rights standards.

Freedom of Movement

In 2007 the Turkmen government abolished the system of special permits previously required for residents of Turkmenistan who wished to travel in the border areas of the country Human Rights Watch is also aware of at least nine individuals who were on ‘exit ban lists' during the Niazov era who were allowed to travel abroad in 2007. But reports persist that dozens of others continue to face arbitrary restrictions on travel abroad. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any cases in which a previously existing ban on travel abroad was removed in 2008-09.

Meanwhile, we have on file cases in which new bans on travel abroad were recently imposed. 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 annex to this submission, Human Rights Watch lists several individuals who to our knowledge are not allowed to leave Turkmenistan.

  • The European Union should urge the Turkmen authorities to 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.

Political prisoners

Human Rights Watch has publicly welcomed the release of approximately 20 people-believed to have been imprisoned for political reasons-in pardons granted in 2007.  We are pleased that Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, who for 14 years was a political prisoner, was released on May 2 after serving his full prison term. His release renews our concern that during the Niazov era untold numbers of people may have been imprisoned for political reasons. It is a worrisome indication that pardons conducted in 2008 and 2009 included only one person imprisoned on politically motivated charges (activist Valery Pal, arrested in February 2008). The Turkmen 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 Annakurban Amanklychev, and Sapardurdy Khajiev; whose cases are detailed in the annex to this submission. The annex also includes information about two individuals whose arrest and imprisonment 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 condition of Annaniazov.

The Turkmen government has not yet responded to calls by international organizations to disclose 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-such as whether they are alive and where they are held-renders these cases into enforced disappearances, strictly 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 by establishing a nationwide process involving an impartial review of the criminal charges brought 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.

The European Union should urge the Turkmen authorities to:

  • Release all those imprisoned for political reasons. These would include Gulgeldy Annaniazov, Annakurban Amanklychev, and Sapardurdy Khajiev. Provide them, and Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, 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; and
  • Establish a nationwide process to ensure a remedy for victims of injustice during Niazov's rule that would involve an impartial review of criminal charges brought against political figures and dissidents, the fairness of criminal proceedings in such cases, and, where appropriate, compensation for violations of human rights.


Redress for torture: implementing a decision of the UN Human Rights Committee

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to 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 it to implement the decisions of the Committee.

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 of involvement in the 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 the Turkmen government has taken to comply with this ruling.


  • The European Union should urge the Turkmen authorities to fully comply with the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee in Komarovski v Turkmenistan and to prevent similar violations from happening in the future, including by investigating and prosecuting anyone responsible for torture and ill-treatment of the defendants in 2002 alleged attack against President Niazov and providing Komarovski and other victims of similar abuses with an appropriate remedy, including compensation.

Access for human rights monitors

In a positive move, the Turkmen 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 are denied access to the country, despite longstanding requests for an invitation from Turkmen government. Extending a standing invitation to all UN human rights monitors, 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.


The European Union should urge the Turkmen authorities to:

  • 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;
  • Promptly extend invitations to all UN special procedures that have requested access to Turkmenistan, including those on torture, on education, on health, on human rights defenders, on the independence of judges and lawyers, on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, on violence against women, and on arbitrary detention;
  • Extend a standing invitation to all the UN special procedures.

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 person involved in the clashes, Khudaiberdy Amandurdyev, was among the so-called "Ashgabad Eight" who were imprisoned in 1995 for organizing a peaceful demonstration held in Ashgabad that year.[1] The violence appears to be prompted by alleged police mistreatment of Amandurdyev's wife. The Turkmen 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.

  • The European Union should urge the Turkmen authorities to 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 the prosecution of those responsible for crimes.


Individuals who should be immediately released

Gulgeldy Annaniazov

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, have not been allowed to visit him since his arrest in June, and were 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 and no reliable investigation of her death was conducted. Turkmen authorities declared that Muradova "died of natural causes." Muradova was held incommunicado throughout her detention (almost three months). Authorities at first refused to show Muradova's son her body and threatened unspecified consequences if he did not stop asking to see it. When Muradova's body was finally delivered home, her son noticed a wound on her head.

Individuals whose cases should be transparently reviewed and who should be released pending such review


Boris Shikhmuradov, Batyr Berdiev and others convicted in relation to the 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 the 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 other individuals also 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 Ashgabad 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 have been 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.


[1] 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 "Ashgabad Eight," - returned to Ashgabad from Norway, where he had received refugee status, and was arrested in June.

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