Turkmenistan's capital city Ashgabat.

© 2015 Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (Wikimedia Commons)

Most people have not heard of Begmurad Otuzov. His wife, son, and other relatives had not heard from – nor seen – him in more than 15 years, since his arrest in 2002 in Turkmenistan. Otuzov was one of more than 100 people who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prison system.

He died last month.

Otuzov, a veteran security official, was among dozens whom then-President Saparmurat Niyazov purged from the state security services and the military, apparently fearing their growing influence. Most were sentenced to outrageously long prison terms, often in closed trials, and then disappeared from sight or contact, presumably to languish – facing potential death – in Turkmenistan’s jails.

Several months after his arrest, Otuzov was sentenced to 25 years in prison on corruption and abuse of power charges, among others.

This was only the beginning of the Otuzov’s ordeal. His loved ones had no contact with him – no letters, no visits, no phone calls – and no official information about his fate or health. Instead, more than 15 years later, all his family got was his corpse, weighing about 45 kilograms, for burial.

Enforced disappearances – the detention of an individual followed by denial of detention or refusal to provide any information on their whereabouts or fate – are a crime under international law. In Turkmenistan, victims are often tortured and ill-treated and almost never released. For years, international organizations have been calling on the Turkmen government to reveal information about the disappeared. But authorities deny they disappeared anyone.

Their silence, to families, must be deafening.

Otuzov’s death is a reminder that time is running out for some behind bars. The Prove They Are Alive campaign, which fights enforced disappearances in Turkmenistan, documented 26 deaths in custody of those disappeared. The campaign believes another 23 disappeared inmates may have also died.

The organization also documented that the prison terms of at least 17 of the disappeared have either already expired or will expire by the end of 2020. Will they survive long enough for their families to finally learn their whereabouts, let alone see them alive?

Turkmen authorities should immediately inform the relatives of the disappeared of their fate and allow unconditional access to them. Turkmenistan’s international partners should make the fate of the disappeared a priority and urge the government to break its silence.