(New York) - Turkmen authorities have detained at least four people since early March, 2011, on what appear to be politically motivated grounds, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrests took place in advance of a key visit by the European Parliament, beginning on April 27, 2011, to assess the human rights situation in the country.
"This latest wave of arrests is a chilling reminder of the Turkmen government's unrelenting repression of any independent voices," said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The European Parliament should speak out forcefully against abuses and press for these individuals' immediate release in the meetings with the Turkmen authorities."
The European Parliament delegation's assessment of Turkmenistan is intended to help determine the parliament's position on a key agreement pending its approval - the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). The agreement would fully normalize the EU's relations with Turkmenistan, including granting trade and other benefits. It has been frozen for years over human rights concerns, but a renewed push to move forward with it is under way.
Those detained include:
- Bazargeldy and Aydjemal Berdyev, detained on April 19 by about 10 men believed to be national security officers, who broke into their home and took the couple away in handcuffs. The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, a Vienna-based nongovernmental organization, said the couple has been the target of government persecution, including alleged torture, unlawful detention, and illegal confiscation of property, for more than a decade and for which they have unsuccessfully sought redress. The group had published an account detailing their ordeal in late March.
- Bisengul Begdesenov, a prominent leader of the Kazakh community in Turkmenistan, detained at his home on April 11 by officials from the National Security Ministry. Sources close to Begdesenov told Human Rights Watch that national security officials searched his apartment without a warrant and confiscated computers, USB memory cards, and documents. Begdesenov apparently faces charges of fraud and could face up to five years in prison if convicted. Begdesenov is the founder of Kazakh social-cultural center "Elimay Turkmenistan," which he had unsuccessfully tried to register with the Turkmen authorities. The World Association of Kazakhs recently elected him as a delegate to participate in a major gathering to be held in Astana from May 25 to 27.
- Amangelen Shapudakov, an 80-year-old contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, detained on March 7 and forcibly confined in a psychiatric facility in Balkanabat, a regional capital. Police had previously detained Shapudakov in February after he complained to international organizations about official harassment. Radio Free Europe reported that Shapudakov had also been barred from leaving his home district, and that photos suggesting he was a criminal had been posted in public places.
Turkmenistan is widely recognized as one of the most repressive countries in the world. The rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and religion are subject to draconian restrictions. Independent civil society activists and journalists cannot work freely in the country. The government threatens, harasses, and arrests those who question its policies, however modestly.
While many EU member states and the European External Action Service actively support the conclusion of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement despite Turkmenistan's atrocious rights record, the European Parliament has called for the Turkmen government to take specific human rights steps in exchange for enhanced relations with the EU.
Among the parliament's demands is for the Turkmen government to release all those imprisoned on politically motivated grounds. Well known political prisoners include Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who worked with human rights organizations prior to their imprisonment in 2006, and a political dissident, Gulgeldy Annaniazov, whose relatives have had no information about him since his imprisonment in 2008. A Pentecostal pastor, Ilmurad Nurliev, is also imprisoned on political grounds. He was sentenced in October 2010 to four years in prison on what appear to be bogus swindling charges.
In a briefing note prepared for the European Parliament in advance of its visit, Human Rights Watch highlighted the abysmal state of human rights in Turkmenistan and urged it to ensure that the EU promotes concrete progress in human rights as part of its engagement with Turkmenistan.
"This week's visit is a key opportunity for the European Parliament to insist on the need for reforms and make clear there can be no upgrading of relations without concrete human rights improvements," Szente Goldston said.