José Manuel Barroso
President of the European Commission
1049 Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, May 5, 2009

Re: Turkmenistan

Dear President Barroso,

We are writing on the eve of your meeting with the Turkmen delegation to the 8th of May energy summit in Prague, to urge you to convey the European Union's determination to see concrete and tangible human rights improvements in Turkmenistan as part of the process of upgrading relations. We urge you to relay this message directly to Tachberdy Tagyev, deputy chair of the cabinet of ministers, who is leading the delegation.

Conveying this message is especially important in light of the Commission's recent commitments to monitor human rights in Turkmenistan, made in the context of the debates in the European Parliament on the issue of an Interim Trade Agreement (ITA) between the E.U. and Turkmenistan.

As you know, the conclusion of the ITA was suspended for a number of years due to the Turkmen government's human rights record and its failure to meet basic human rights criteria set by the European Parliament.  The European Commission advocated proceeding with the agreement, arguing that it would better enable the E.U. to affect positive change in Turkmenistan and that the agreement, in Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner's words, "will contribute to better adherence [of Turkmenistan] to international norms, in particular in the area of the rule of law and human rights." Raising specific human rights concerns now, in the wake of the European Parliament's green light to upgraded contractual relations, is imperative to show the credibility of this promise. 

The government of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has taken several initiatives to reverse some of the most ruinous social welfare policies of Saparmurad Niazov, who ruled Turkmenistan for 21 years until his death in 2006. The Turkmen government has improved the country's reporting to U.N. human rights bodies, and agreed to a visit by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief last fall.

But aside from releasing a handful of political prisoners and easing restrictions on travel inside the country, the government has taken no significant steps to improve the human rights situation, which remains abysmal. As evidenced by the recent Universal Periodic Review of Turkmenistan at the U.N. Human Rights Council in December 2008 and March 2009, the Turkmen government continues to resist genuine human rights reform. Perhaps most tellingly, it rejected a number of key recommendations, including steps that would require nothing but political will to implement, such as freeing political prisoners and lifting arbitrary travel bans on activists and relatives of opposition members. The Turkmen government continues to threaten those inside the country who raise even the smallest questions about its policies. Independent civil society activists and journalists cannot work freely in Turkmenistan, which remains closed to independent human rights monitors.

As described in the enclosed letter that Human Rights Watch sent to President Berdymukhamedov in March this year, excessive and unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression, association, movement, religion and belief remain in Turkmenistan. An unknown number of people languish in Turkmen prisons following unfair trials on what would appear to be politically motivated charges. Some became victims of enforced disappearances. Among them is the very state official who signed the EU-Turkmenistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 1998, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov. In 2002, Shikhmuradov was accused of an alleged plot against Niazov, sentenced to life imprisonment following a sham, closed trial, and held incommunicado ever since his arrest.  Turkmen authorities to this day have not disclosed his whereabouts or the whereabouts of his brother, Konstantin, or of Batyr Berdyev, former ambassador of Turkmenistan to the O.S.C.E..

Also, the initial ITA with Turkmenistan was signed by Khudaiberdy Orazov, then deputy prime minister, who subsequently had to flee the country fearing political persecution. He remains in exile; his sister and his brother-in-law are among numerous relatives of exiled dissidents and opposition members who are banned from traveling abroad. Their cases are described in the attached letter. 

In short, Turkmenistan remains one of most repressive countries in the world. Its human rights record is a complete anathema to the values the European Union stands for.

Nearly five years ago, when asking for the European Parliament's vote of confidence, you earned well deserved praise for saying that you "stand for basic values that underpin [the European] Union: freedom, respect for human rights, the rule of law, equality of opportunity, solidarity and social justice."  As you and many others have said, the European Union needs to live up to these commitments in order to be "a strong and credible partner."

We urge you to do just this in your meeting with Turkmen officials, by indicating that human rights are an integral part of all aspects of European Union policy and pressing for the following concrete reform steps:

  • To free immediately and unconditionally and fully restore all civil rights of all those imprisoned on politically motivated charges, including human rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, and dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov; 
  • To start a nationwide review, which should be open to international observers, of all cases of political imprisonment over the past years (including cases involving those accused of the alleged 2002 plot against President Niazov) and ensure that victims of abuse by the security and justice authorities are provided with justice, including compensation for any abuse, and prosecution of those who abused them;
  • To lift informal travel bans on activists and relatives of opposition members, and dismantle the system that allows the government to interfere with residents' ability to leave and return to Turkmenistan and restrict their freedom of movement within the country;
  • To allow activists, civic groups, and journalists to operate freely and without fear of persecution, and;
  • To ensure access to the country, including to places of detention, for independent human rights monitors.

We hope you will convey to the Turkmen government that these steps are essential to make Turkmenistan a more suitable partner for further engagement.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent concerns and we look forward to a continued dialogue with the European Commission on human rights in Turkmenistan.

Sincerely,

Holly Cartner                                                                                    

Director, Europe and Central Asia Division

 

Lotte Leicht

E.U. Director