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Turkmenistan: Briefing Note for the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee and Central Asia Delegation on Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive countries in the world. Its record in the five areas of concern identified by the European Parliament - releasing political prisoners; lifting informal travel bans on activists and their relatives; allowing independent human rights monitors into the country; instituting further civil liberties, including for non-governmental organizations; and implementing reforms at all levels and in all areas of administration - remains completely unsatisfactory.

The Parliament has a crucial role to play in ensuring the EU makes full use of its potential to act as a catalyst for positive change in Turkmenistan. The upcoming Foreign Affairs Committee and Central Asia delegation visit to Turkmenistan provides a critical opportunity to follow up on the concerns the Parliament has expressed in its past resolutions, to ask the Turkmen authorities to explain their policies in each of these areas, and to urge specific improvements. The visit should also be used as an opportunity to assess the efforts undertaken by the European Union diplomatic corps in Ashgabat to promote concrete progress in human rights as part of the EU's engagement with Turkmenistan.

Following the visit, the Parliament should reiterate its request for a detailed report from the European External Action Service on the impact of the Interim Trade Agreement (ITA) on the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, and on the steps taken to follow up on the promise, given to the Parliament in spring 2009 by the Commission and the Council, to press for meaningful human rights improvements in Turkmenistan in the lead-up period to the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA).

In approving the ITA with Turkmenistan in April 2009, the Parliament described the agreement "as a potential lever to strengthen the reform process in Turkmenistan." As it now proceeds to consider the merits of a full-fledged PCA with Turkmenistan, it is critically important for it to engage in a serious, honest assessment of what positive impact - if any - the ITA has had on the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, and make clear that any further upgrading of relations must be contingent on concrete, measurable human rights improvements.

Below we provide a summary of current concerns in the five areas identified by the European Parliament as needing to be addressed, as well as in several additional areas of relevance for assessing the state of human rights in Turkmenistan.

Political prisoners
Unknown numbers of individuals continue to languish in Turkmen prisons on what appear to be politically motivated charges. The justice system lacks transparency, in political cases trials are closed, and the overall level of repression preclude regular independent human rights monitoring from taking place. These factors make it impossible to arrive at a reliable number of alleged political prisoners or evaluate the legitimacy of the charges laid against them.

In the past few years, it has become even more difficult to track developments regarding the use of the criminal justice system for political purposes because less information is published in the Turkmen media about the dismissal and subsequent imprisonment of medium- and high-level officials.

Well-known political prisoners include Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who had worked with human rights organizations prior to their imprisonment, and political dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov. Amanklychev and Khajiev, imprisoned in 2006, are serving seven-year sentences. Annaniazov's relatives have had no official information about him since his imprisonment in 2008.

Following the death of president-for-life Saparmurad Niyazov in December 2006, the government released a handful of political prisoners. But since then the Turkmen government has not only failed to begin a process of reviewing all potential cases of political imprisonment in order to ensure the release of all those wrongfully imprisoned, but has not even acknowledged the existence of political prisoners as such. During the Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council in December 2008, the government of Turkmenistan refused to accept any recommendations relating to the issue of political prisoners, making clear that it considers all these persons ordinary criminals. 

Torture and enforced disappearance
Torture and ill-treatment remain major concerns, compounded by the complete lack of access to detention facilities by independent monitors, and the overall vacuum of human rights monitoring in the country. Human Rights Watch is aware of several cases in which individuals detained in Turkmenistan reported that they had been held incommunicado and subjected to ill-treatment, including torture. To the best of our knowledge, in none of these cases has an effective investigation into these allegations taken place.

Sazak Durdymuradov and Amangelen Shapudakov, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributors Sazak Durdymuradov, an unpaid contributor to the media outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a history teacher, was seized by secret police in his home on June 20, 2008.  According to Radio Free Europe, he was detained and transferred to a psychiatric clinic known to many as the "Turkmen gulag." He was held there for two weeks, badly beaten, and subjected to psychological pressure before being released on July 4, 2008. During his detention Durdymuradov was pressured to sign a statement that he would stop writing for Radio Free Europe; when he was released, he was warned to provide only "correct information."

More recently, 80-year-old Amangelen Shapudakov, another contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was detained on March 7, 2011 and forcibly confined in a psychiatric facility in the regional capital of Balkanabat. Radio Free Europe reported on April 1 that an official had confirmed to its Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, that Shapudakov had been committed at least 10 days before for medical exams and was expected to remain at the hospital for another month. Police previously detained Shapudakov in February 2011, after he complained to international organizations about official harassment. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Shapudakov had also been banned from leaving his home district, and photos suggesting he was a criminal had been posted in public places.

Bazargeldy and Aydjemal Berdyev
Bazargeldy and Aydjemal Berdyev were initially harassed by national security officers in 1998 in relation to their business activities.  For thirteen years now, they have unsuccessfully tried to seek justice for the mistreatment they suffered. Their complaints to Prosecutor-General's office, the OSCE Centre and the UN representation offices in Ashgabat have brought no results. In 2009 the couple filed a complaint with the National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (NIDHR), an official body under the office of the president, alleging that they had both been tortured by security services in 1998. The NIDHR, in its response to the Berdyevs, admitted only moral damage caused to the couple. It said that materials of the Berdyevs' complaint regarding illegal confiscation of property, torture and baby miscarriage will be transferred to the Commission for Citizens' Complaints about Law Enforcement Agencies under the President, to the Prosecutor General, and to the Chairman of the Supreme Court. However, from the date of the NIDHR's response (2009) to this writing, no follow up on the Berdyevs' complaint has taken place.

According to the exiled non-governmental group Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, Bazargeldy Berdiyev was held for more than three months in a Ministry of National Security detention facility, during which time he was severely beaten and tortured. Mr. Berdyev became disabled as a result of the beating. Ms. Berdiyev sustained a broken hand and a miscarriage as a result of the beating and other torture she endured in the same facility. Law enforcement bodies accused the Berdyevs of swindling and arbitrarily seized a large amount of foreign currency and personal belongings from them. After their release the Berdyevs tried to seek redress. The authorities detained, beat and forcibly held Aydjemal Berdyev in a psychiatric clinic in retribution for pursuing a compliant. According to the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, Ms. Berdyev is suffering serious psychological problems as a result of the years of persecution the family has endured for seeking redress.

Boris Shikhmuradov and other defendants convicted for the 2002 alleged assassination attempt against Saparmurat Niyazov
The fate of some of the approximately 50 prisoners convicted in relation to the November 2002 alleged assassination attempt on deceased President Niyazov-including former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov and Turkmenistan's former ambassador to the OSCE, Batyr Berdiev-remains unknown, with their whereabouts not disclosed even to their families. Human Rights Watch is aware of unconfirmed reports that a number of defendants in the 2002 plot case have died in detention.

The investigations and subsequent trials following the 2002 assassination attempt were characterized by a blatant disregard for basic due process and fair trial standards.  The trials were closed, and defendants were held incommunicado and not granted counsel of their choice. Human Rights Watch received credible reports of ill-treatment and torture of suspects. According to individuals close to his case, Amanmukhamet Yklymov, one of the defendants, made a statement in court describing how he had been tortured, but the court disregarded it. Relatives of many suspects were also detained and subjected to torture and psychological pressure in an effort to force them to incriminate their loved ones. Many remain in detention to this date.

Freedom of movement
Turkmen authorities continue to arbitrarily interfere with and control residents' right to leave and return to Turkmenistan through an informal and arbitrary system of travel bans, commonly imposed on activists and relatives of exiled dissidents. While a handful of civil society and political activists who had previously been banned from foreign travel have been permitted to travel abroad, a so-called "blacklist" of names of people banned from leaving the country is still in place.

For example, on July 16, 2010 Turkmen border control would not allow Umida Jumbaeva, an activist, leave the country to visit friends in Kazakhstan. Jumbaeva had helped environmental activist Andrei Zatoka during his arrest and trial in October 2009.

For years Radio Liberty stringer Gurbansoltan Achilova and her family endured various forms of harassment by the authorities and were barred from foreign travel. Her son Mukhammetmyrat, who had repeatedly been denied permission to travel abroad, committed suicide on June 12, 2010. One month later the family received a letter from the Turkmen migration services granting him permission to travel.

Svetlana Orazova, sister of exiled opposition leader, for years has been banned from traveling abroad, and beginning in June 2008 her husband Ovez Annaev was likewise banned. In November 2009 Annaev died in Turkmenistan because he could not leave the country for a medical treatment.  

In summer 2009 authorities intensified restrictions on foreign travel by imposing a new travel ban targeting students bound for foreign private universities, and introduced new, burdensome requirements for studying abroad that prevent people in Turkmenistan from exercising their rights to education and freedom of movement. While many of the students were able to travel to study abroad a year later, those pursuing their studies in Kyrgyzstan (where the American University of Central Asia, a popular destination for students from the region, is located) continued to face obstacles and pressure. 

In September 2010 HRW became aware of Turkmen authorities banning Turkmen citizens with Kyrgyz visas in their passports from leaving the country. For example, migration officials at Ashgabat airport denied a young woman the right to travel to a third country because she had a valid Kyrgyz visa in her passport. An official told her she could leave the country only after she cancelled the visa.

Since summer 2010, dual Russian-Turkmen citizens have been prohibited from traveling from Turkmenistan to Russia using their Russian passports. Turkmen migration services refuse to allow citizens to leave if they lack valid Russian visas in their Turkmen passports. This new policy came with no prior warning and imposed hardships on many holders of dual citizenship, including students. 

Currently, there are no effective legal remedies for arbitrary interference with travel abroad. Those who complain to the migration or security services often encounter immediate rejection of their appeals, or see them bounced from one department to another. In some cases, migration service officials do not even explain to people why they may not leave the country. Due to profound distrust of the justice system and fear of retaliation, people whose freedom of movement has been restricted generally do not appeal the authorities' decisions.  

Lack of access for independent monitors, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
No independent organization has been permitted to monitor the human rights situation inside the country, and no international agency-governmental or non-governmental - has had access to detention facilities.

The government has persistently denied access to the country for independent human rights monitors, including no fewer than nine UN special procedures, the ICRC, and non-governmental organizations. A visit in September 2008 by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion - the first UN special rapporteur to visit the country - gave rise to hope that it would be followed by a more sustained opening of the country for independent human rights monitoring. More than two-and-one-half years later, no further visits have materialized and Turkmenistan remains utterly closed to independent human rights scrutiny.

In December 2009, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) announced that following repeated rejections on the part of Turkmen authorities of their project proposals, they were forced to close. MSF was the last remaining international humanitarian non-governmental organization in Turkmenistan, where it had worked since 1999.

Further improvements in civil liberties, including for non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
The rights to freedom of expression and association are subject to draconian restrictions in Turkmenistan. Independent civil society activists and journalists cannot work freely in the country. Activists and journalists both in Turkmenistan and in exile remain under a constant threat of government reprisal for their work.

In fall 2010 Turkmen officials once again tried unsuccessfully to block exiled activists from participating in OSCE meetings, including the organization's review conference in Warsaw in October 2010.

On September 30, 2010, the day after an interview with exiled Turkmen human rights activist Farid Tukhbatullin was broadcast on a channel accessible in Turkmenistan through satellite connection, President Berdymukhamedov instructed the Cabinet of Ministers to fight against those who "slander the democratic state of Turkmenistan." According to a reliable source in Turkmenistan, in early October officials at the Ministry of National Security discussed "get[ting] rid of [Farid Tukhbatullin] quietly," in a way that is hard to trace, "something like an accident or something that [could] cause heart failure."

Prior to this incident, authorities in Turkmenistan in summer 2010 began questioning former classmates and teachers of Tukhbatullin's son. It was a clear attempt to intimidate them and pressure Tukhbatullin, whose relatives in Turkmenistan had already been subject to government pressure in previous years. The Turkmen authorities' established practice of intimidating human rights defenders living in exile by targeting extended family members still residing in Turkmenistan was also highlighted in the recently-released 2011 UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual human rights report. According to the report, this commonly includes "preventing family members from securing jobs, gaining access to schools and medical facilities or from leaving the country."

The security services routinely warn activists in Turkmenistan not to meet with EU and other officials who visit the country, for example as they did during the visit of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion in October 2008. In light of this pressure, independent activists have told Human Rights Watch they prefer not to meet visiting delegations in order to avoid harassment and threats.

Since 2004 no independent NGO has been able to register in Turkmenistan. The Law on Public Associations has been criticized for setting unrealistic requirements for NGO registration; for example, a national or international NGO must have 50 to 500 members in order to register.

Freedom of information
There is a complete lack of media freedoms in Turkmenistan. All print and electronic media are controlled by the state. It is very difficult for foreign media outlets to cover Turkmenistan because they often cannot access the country and because in recent years local stringers for foreign outlets have been harassed and intimidated.

While Internet access has expanded since the death of President Niyazov, it is still limited and heavily controlled by the state. The only internet service provider is operated by the government. Many websites are blocked in Turkmenistan, internet cafes require visitors to present their passports, and the government monitors electronic communications.

It is extremely difficult to obtain foreign newspapers and magazines in Turkmenistan. Border guards are known to confiscate foreign printed materials. Merchants can sell only media published in Turkmenistan.

In December 2010 the Turkmen government, without prior warning, suspended the operation of the Russian mobile operator MTS, which had provided domestic and international mobile connection and mobile internet access, leaving thousands of customers out of reach.

The need to implement reforms at all levels and in all areas of administration
Turkmenistan continues to have single-party rule. Despite President Berdymukhamedov's statements in spring 2010 that the country is "ready for a multi-party system," to date there is no indication that he will allow an independent political party or movement.

Under the current constitution, amended in 2008, the president appoints and dismisses judges without parliamentary review and forms the central election commission. 

There is no rule of law in Turkmenistan. The constitutional principle of separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches is absent in Turkmenistan. Both the legislative and judicial branches of power in practice serve the executive.

Turkmenistan is the only CIS country that has no constitutional court or ombudsman.  A National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (NIDHR) was created under the president's office but in practice it has no power.  The Commission for Citizens' Complaints about Law Enforcement Agencies is also under the auspices of the president, who chairs it.  The commission aims to "pursue further democratic developments ensuring protection of rights and liberties of a person enshrined in the Constitution." It also aims to improve the revision procedure of citizens' complaints. The second-in-charge of this commission is the chairman of the Supreme Court. The composition of the commission raises concerns about its autonomy and fairness.

In 2010 and 2011 Turkmenistan adopted a raft of new laws, including amendments to the criminal and administrative codes and on the legal profession, and on legal provision of foreigners' stay. However, none of these changes have addressed the government's fundamental lack of public accountability.

In 2010 Transparency International ranked Turkmenistan close to the bottom in its Corruption Perception Index at 172 of 178 nations. Corruption is rampant and penetrates all levels of social life. Due to widespread judicial corruption and the courts' dependency on the executive, legal remedies are a mostly ineffective mean of legal redress. Ordinary citizens have profound distrust of the judicial system. In some cases individuals cannot challenge court decisions simply because they cannot obtain verdicts in time. Heads of bar associations report directly to the Ministry of Justice, an arrangement that allows the state to enjoy full control of the bar and is inconsistent with the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers which states that executive bodies of professional associations of lawyers shall exercise their functions without external interference (principle 24).

Freedom of Religion
The right to freedom of religion in Turkmenistan is severely restricted. The authorities raid unregistered religious groups' sites of worship of and harass their congregants.

On October 21, 2010, a court sentenced Ilmurad Nurliev, head of the Light to the World Pentecostal Church, to four years in prison on what appear to be bogus swindling charges. The prosecution argued that Nurliev had swindled four people who visited a shelter run by the church, even though one of the alleged victims was in prison for much of the time the swindling allegedly took place, and two did not testify in court. The trial judge refused to allow all but three church members to testify for the defense, and the court failed to provide the defense with the written verdict in time to appeal. Light to the World worship services were raided in 2008, and Nurliev and congregants have endured harassment by government agencies in recent years.

During a police raid on a Baptist congregation in Dashagouz in December 2009, officials confiscated religious books, and congregants were questioned and pressured to sign statements promising to desist from worshipping with the congregation in the future. In June 2010 the authorities again pressured several members of that church to sign similar statements.

On June 20, 2010 the security services detained a group of 47 Protestants who had gathered in Geoktepe for two days of prayer and Bible study. The group was held overnight in a police station and questioned before being released.

The Turkmen government continues to imprison Jehovah's Witnesses for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, and at this writing holds at least eight in custody.

The government's undeclared campaign against terrorism has involved a crackdown on Muslims branded "Wahhabi," a term the Turkmen government uses to defame followers of a more austere form of Islam and imply their association with terrorism. According to Forum 18, an independent news reporting service focused on religious freedom, in June 2010 a mullah in Dashagouz province received a three-year prison sentence after security services searched his home and allegedly found a fake grenade, which then inexplicably vanished from the case materials. Police officers compelled all of the mullah's followers to shave their beards.

Cult of personality
Following President Niyazov's death, his notorious personality cult smoothly transitioned into a cult of personality of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Ubiquitous portraits of Niyazov were merely replaced with portraits of Berdymukhamedov in kindergartens, schools, universities, state institutions, hospitals, aircrafts, newspapers, markets, streets, and the like.

The president enjoys unlimited power. Berdymukhamedov's associates now exercise power over all aspect of public life and business in Turkmenistan. In the past four years Berdymukhamedov has been awarded numerous scientific degrees in Turkmenistan. Books written about and allegedly by Berdymukhamedov, including an encyclopedia of medicinal plants and a book of praise about his grandfather, have been published. Turkmenistan's state-controlled media endlessly praise and glorify him.

In 2007, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, Berdymukhamedov was awarded the Motherland Order - a diamond-studded gold pendant on a massive golden chain lined with gems that, according to media reports, weighed nearly 1 kilogram. The award was for his "outstanding achievements" even though at the time he had been in office for only six months. 

Berdymukhamedov has had a grandiose new presidential palace built by the French company Bouygues, abandoning the one built by Niyazov in 2001. The new palace is due to open in May 2011.  The homes of hundreds of local residents were swiftly demolished to make space for the construction of the new palace.

The "Ruhnama" (The Book of the Soul), President Niyazov's propaganda book, remains a subject in university entrance exams.

Human rights violations in the context of house demolitions
Throughout the past fifteen years, the government of Turkmenistan has been conducting a massive urban renewal project to rebuild the capital, Ashgabat and other locations in the country. Spearheaded by President Niyazov, the project is officially known as "The national program of beautification of social conditions for population until 2020." A key element of the project has been the demolition of houses in the capital city, Ashgabat, and other towns in Turkmenistan. These demolitions have been carried out by means of forced evictions, displacing thousands of residents without the guarantee of protection of due process or appropriate compensation.

The implementation of the presidential urban renewal project is completely opaque.  The general reconstruction plan for the city of Ashgabat is not accessible to the general public, including the residents of Ashgabat. The official aim of the project is the modernization and beautification of the capital, and the creation of space for new state buildings, hotels, squares, parks, and fountains for public enjoyment. It has resulted in the forced eviction of thousands of property owners, including people whose homes used to be located on the site of the hotel where European Parliament delegates traveling to Ashgabat will be staying.

According to evidence received by Human Rights Watch and an exiled Turkmen human rights group,  homeowners received little notice of impending evictions, sometimes as little as a few weeks. No assessment of the market value of their homes was conducted. Provision of new accommodations resulted in a number of violations of the housing law. In many cases, for example, the size of the new accommodation provided by the state was smaller than the one homeowners had lost. In some cases home owners received neither new accommodation nor financial compensation for their demolished homes. Home owners are not informed about their rights to new accommodation, and in some cases local authorities harassed and intimidated evictees who challenged their compensation packages. Homeowners uniformly told Human Rights Watch they profoundly distrusted the judiciary and believed that challenging compensation packages through the courts would be utterly futile.

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