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(Brussels) – The European Union is moving ahead on a key trade agreement with Turkmenistan even though the government has failed to meet related human rights benchmarks, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 11, 2016, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee will hold its first hearing on the agreement.

In a March 31 letter, a coalition of 29 human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, urged members of the European Parliament to defer approval of the agreement until the Turkmen government meets the parliament’s human rights benchmarks.

Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov listens to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s opening statement before a meeting in Ashgabat.  © 2015 Reuters

“The Turkmen government has done almost nothing to meet the human rights benchmarks that the European Parliament set out specifically because of the country’s ghastly human rights record,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU shouldn’t even be considering moving ahead with this agreement.”

Since 1999, the EU had held up concluding a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement – a framework agreement for trade and legal relations – with Turkmenistan due to human rights concerns. The agreement contains a clause committing both parties to respect human rights and providing for the possibility of suspension should either party violate this principle.

Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, Human Rights Watch said. The government refuses to acknowledge the enforced disappearances in the prison system over many years – of more than 100 people, many of them former public figures. It continues to arrest and imprison people on politically motivated grounds. Several thousand people, most of them relatives of imprisoned or exiled critics of the government, have been arbitrarily banned from travel abroad to intimidate and prevent them from seeking justice for their loved ones.

Turkmenistan remains closed to independent human rights scrutiny, and at least 12 United Nations experts who have requested invitations from the government to visit the country have not received them. Independent human rights groups are banned from operating in Turkmenistan. The government allows no media freedoms, and has in the past year destroyed private satellite dishes, further isolating people from information not approved by the government.

In 2009, the European Parliament set out specific human rights benchmarks the Turkmen government would need to meet before the agreement could be ratified. They include:
  • The unconditional release of all political prisoners;
  • The removal of obstacles to free travel;
  • Free access for the International Red Cross and other independent monitors; and
  • Improvements in civil liberties

“The European Parliament should stick to its principles, and insist that the Turkmen government make real progress on human rights before deepening its relationship with the country through this trade agreement,” Rachel Denber said. “Turkmenistan’s human rights record is so unrelentingly bad, that if the EU were to take the trade agreement’s human rights clause seriously, it would have to suspend the agreement as soon as it was signed.”

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