On July 6 the European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, will be in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, to lay the groundwork to open an office of an EU delegation. The EU has 140 delegations around the world, and it’s a mark of prestige for this isolated country to host one. 

A Turkmen choir dressed in green, the national flag color, sings the national anthem at the opening ceremony of the world weightlifting championships in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, on Nov. 1, 2018. 

© 2018 Kyodo News via Getty Images

The delegation will have its work cut out for it: Turkmenistan has one of the most repressive governments in the world, with a long track record of locking up activists and human rights defenders. It ranked last in a 2019 index on global pressfreedom. Torture is widespread.

This is a far cry from what is envisaged in the EU’s brand new Central Asia strategy, which rightly calls on governments in the region to uphold human rights standards, allow rights defenders and journalists to operate freely, and eradicate torture.

If anything, Turkmenistan’s record is getting worse. More people are banned, without explanation, from foreign travel. The government has said little about the whereabouts of more than 100 people forcibly disappearedin the prison system following closed, unfair trials. Their families have had no contact, in some cases for more than 15 years. 

In recent years, the government has become more open to discuss disappearances, for example, with the EU and at the UN Human Rights Council,but there is little to cheer. Meanwhile, at least 27 have died in custody, ten of them in the past four years, as the government has “dialogued” with the EU about the issue. The prison sentences of at least 14 of the disappeared are set to expire through 2020, but absent strong pressure from external actors their fates are unclear - the courts could simply extend their sentences, as they just did to Gulgeldy Annaniyazov. He was serving an 11-year sentence set to expire in March 2019. Instead, he was handed another five years. 

The new delegation is supposed to enable the EU to “step up dialogue and cooperation” with Turkmenistan. But the EU shouldn’t waste time and money on engagement for its own sake. Mogherini should tell the government the new EU office will spare no efforts to press for real human rights changes in the country. Meanwhile, she should insist on the release of Annaniyazov and the other 14 whose sentences are ending, and for an end to the crimes of disappearance in the country. 

Update: This dispatch was updated on July 5 to correct the date of Ms Mogherini’s visit to Ashgabat