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(New York) – Dozens of people have been forcibly disappeared in Turkmenistan, some for more than a decade, Human Rights Watch said in a video released today. The government of Turkmenistan should immediately inform the relatives of the disappeared of their fate and whereabouts and allow them access to their loved ones.

Many of the disappeared were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in connection with the alleged assassination attempt against then-President Saparmurat Niyazov on November 25, 2002.

“It’s been 12 years of silence and repression,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkmen government needs to come clean about where these people are and indeed whether they are dead or alive.”

In the video, Sapar Yklymov tells Human Rights Watch that he has had no news whatsoever of his three brothers since their arrest shortly after the November 25, 2002 incident. His brothers, Yklym, Aman, and Oraz, were sentenced, respectively, to life, 20 years, and 19 years in prison following show trials at which they had no effective legal representation.

“I need to know where my husband is,” Tatyana Shikmuradova says in the video. Her husband, former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 25 years in prison in a five-day span in December 2002 in connection with the November 25 events. Despite her many letters to the Turkmen authorities, Shikhmuradova has received no information about her husband and has never been permitted to correspond with or visit him.

Others forcibly disappeared after their arrest in connection with the 2002 events include Tagandurdy Khallyev, the former speaker of parliament and dean of Turkmenistan’s main law school, and Batyr Berdyev, the former ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Both were arrested in 2002 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Families of the disappeared have had no official information about the fate, whereabouts, or health of their loved ones since their arrest and trial. The authorities have allowed neither correspondence nor visits. The international Prove They Are Alive! campaign, initiated by human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, has documented how, in a form of collective punishment, the authorities have arrested the relatives of several of the disappeared prisoners, had them fired from jobs, confiscated their property, or denied them permission to travel abroad.

Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world, virtually closed to independent scrutiny. Media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal, and the government uses imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation.

According to Prove They Are Alive!, several other waves of arrests and unfair trials on trumped-up charges at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s resulted in yet more enforced disappearances. In many cases, their families have been unable to learn anything about their imprisoned relatives from the government since.

Many are former officials or public figures who fell out of favor with the former government. For example, Tirkish Tyrmyev, former head of the border service, was sentenced in 2002 to 10 years in prison on abuse-of-office charges. In 2012 the authorities extended his sentence by seven years for allegedly violating prison rules.

Another victim is Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, a former Turkmen political prisoner who had lived in exile in Norway since 2002. Annaniyazov was arrested promptly upon his return to Turkmenistan in June 2008 and sentenced soon afterward to 11 years on charges that were not made public.

Human Rights Watch said governments and international organizations around the world should press the Turkmen government to end its silence about the disappeared and allow full and ongoing access to the imprisoned people by their families, lawyers, and representatives of relevant independent bodies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and United Nations experts.

Enforced disappearances are absolutely prohibited under international law and are a grave crime subject to universal jurisdiction for the purposes of prosecuting those responsible. They constitute flagrant and serious violations of rights enshrined under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture, to which Turkmenistan is a state party. These include the right to life; the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; the right to liberty and security; the right to recognition as a person before the law; and the right of all detained people to be treated with humanity.

The Human Rights Committee, the UN body that oversees governments’ implementation of the covenant, has repeatedly held that enforced disappearances violate multiple provisions of the ICCPR and in particular that being held indefinitely without contact with one’s family and the outside world constitutes a violation of the prohibition on torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.

When it reviewed Turkmenistan’s compliance with the ICCPR in March 2012, the committee marked concern about the “practice of incommunicado detention and imprisonment” and urged the authorities to “immediately make known the whereabouts of those convicted” and “allow visits from members of their families and access to their lawyers.”

“Each day the government denies families information and contact with their loved ones, it inflicts a new trauma,” Denber said. “This needs to stop now.”

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