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(Geneva) – President Eveline Widmer Schlumpf of Switzerland should use the upcoming visit by her Turkmen counterpart to speak out about Turkmenistan's abysmal human rights record and to press for concrete improvements, Human Rights Watch said today. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is scheduled to begin a working visit to Switzerland on October 8, 2012.

Berdymukhamedov will also meet with Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann. In July, a Turkmen government statement indicated that the visit will focus on energy cooperation.  

“Hosting Turkmenistan’s president is a rare opportunity to press him directly for concrete human rights improvements,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “President Widmer Schlumpf needs to send a clear message that respect for human rights is essential to Switzerland’s engagement with Turkmenistan.”

Turkmenistan is rich in natural gas, and is considered an important strategic partner by many governments. But it is one of the most repressive countries in the world.  Political prisoners languish in its prisons, and the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and religion are subject to draconian restrictions. Independent civil society and media cannot operate openly, if at all. The government threatens, harasses, and arrests those who question its policies, however modestly.

Turkmenistan remains closed to independent human rights monitors, including Human Rights Watch.  In 2008, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion became the first UN monitor to visit the country, but the government has refused to grant invitations to ten other UN monitors despite their longstanding requests for access.

Turkmenistan’s appalling human rights record has come under serious criticism by the United Nations in recent years. In March, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a highly critical assessment highlighting the government’s clampdown on freedom of expression and repression of civil society activism, torture, and ill-treatment in places of detention, and the lack of an independent judiciary.  One year earlier, the UN Committee against Torture found “numerous and consistent allegations about the widespread practice of torture and ill-treatment” and voiced concern about enforced disappearances.

In a joint submission to the UN Human Rights Council for its review of Turkmenistan under the Universal Periodic Review of each country’s rights record every four years, Human Rights Watch, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, and Freedom Now detailed how the Turkmen government had ignored the UN Human Rights Council recommendations at the 2008 review.  The review had urged the release of political prisoners and an end to the harassment and persecution of independent journalists, human rights activists, and dissidents.

The paper details the cases of political prisoners, documents how the government forcibly detained an elderly journalist in a psychiatric facility, and describes how the government blacklists dissidents and their relatives, preventing them from traveling abroad.

“The Turkmen government tries to close the country to scrutiny, but its terrible human rights record is a well-known fact,” said Szente Goldston. “Switzerland should consider it an essential part of its communication with Berdymukhamedov to press him to end harassment and persecution.”

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