Turkmenistan's capital city Ashgabat.

© 2015 Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (Wikimedia Commons)

(Berlin) – A Turkmen court sentenced 18 men to up to 25 years in prison on February 8, 2017, in what appears to be a purge of people associated with Turkish schools believed to have been previously affiliated with the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, Human Rights Watch said today. In a statement published on June 9, seven organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, called on the Turkmen government to ensure that the men are released and their sentenced quashed.

“The way Turkmenistan’s courts prosecuted and tried these men bears no resemblance to justice,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkmenistan’s international partners should insist that the government free these men immediately and ensure that they and their families are safe from harm or retaliation.”

The 18 men were among an estimated 100 people authorities arrested in Ashgabat in September and October 2016, all of whom were affiliated with Turkmen-Turkish schools, or are understood to have had some affiliation with the Gülen movement (which often calls itself the Hizmet movement). The others were released. A renewed “anti Gülenist” wave of arrests also appears to be underway since late April in Turkmenistan’s Lebap province, where, credible sources have told Human Rights Watch, police have arrested about 20 people.

Almost all of the 18 men sentenced either taught or studied at Gülen-affiliated Turkish schools in Turkmenistan. Such schools had operated in Turkmenistan since the early 1990s. Most were closed or taken over by the government by 2011. Turkish authorities have accused Gülen of organizing the July 2016 failed coup in Turkey and term the movement he heads the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, though there is no evidence that the majority of Gülen supporters have been involved in violent activities.

In addition to cracking down on the movement in Turkey, the Turkish government has put pressure on countries around the world to close schools, charities, and other organizations thought to be affiliated with it, and to deport some alleged Gülenists to Turkey. In Malaysia and Saudi Arabia the authorities have detained people without due process and deported them to Turkey, where they risk arbitrary detention, an unfair trial, and torture.

In Turkey, more than 100,000 civil servants have been dismissed and 50,000 people, the majority alleged to be Gülenist or accused of participation in the coup, have been jailed pending trial.

The men’s families found out about the arrests in Turkmenistan only through unofficial contacts. They were allowed no contact with their loved ones until after the trial, which was closed and held at the pretrial detention center. Four state-appointed lawyers served as the men’s defense counsel.

A summary version of the verdict, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, says that the court found the men guilty of various offenses relating primarily to incitement to social, ethnic, or religious hatred and involvement in a criminal organization. The summary verdict document provides no information about the acts the men are accused of committing or the evidence against them, and the families have not been able to obtain the full verdict.

Nine of the men were sentenced to 25 years in prison, and the others to 12 years. The court also ordered the confiscation of personal and family property.

People close to the case have told Human Rights Watch that the men were tortured. But lack of access to the men and of access by the men to independent medical treatment means it is not possible for Human Rights Watch to corroborate this. While torture in the criminal justice system is known to be widespread, Turkmenistan is utterly closed to all independent human rights scrutiny, and the government controls all aspects of public life. Independent journalists and the few activists who try to promote human rights under the radar face a constant threat of government reprisal.

The government has also persistently failed to provide information about dozens of people arrested in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many of them on politically motivated charges, who have disappeared in the Turkmen prison system.

Turkmenistan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prohibits torture and obliges states to ensure that all detainees are treated with humanity and to provide anyone held on criminal charges with a fair and public hearing.

“Given the Turkmen government’s appalling human rights record, every minute these men are in custody they are at grave risk of torture and enforced disappearance,” Denber said. “The government behaves as though it is not bound by any international standards whatsoever, so it falls to the country’s international partners to make clear that these standards must be observed.”