Suddenly – and probably briefly – Turkmenistan is in the news again. This Central Asian country, rich in natural gas but appalling on human rights, rarely gets major media attention. It happened when the first president, Saparmurad Niyazov, died, and happens again whenever the personality cult he, and now his successor Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, fostered becomes so grotesque that media outlets would weigh in for the novelty value.
Recent news satires by The Daily Show and Last Night This Week made easy work of Berdymukhamedov’s perverse personality cult, highlighting how extraordinarily repressive the Turkmen government is. But this time the attention was focused on something else: where has the president gone?
Berdymuhamedov, president since late 2006, went missing from public view for several weeks, starting in mid-July, fueling speculation he had died.
Turkmenistan is so closed, and all information so tightly controlled, there was no way to verify these rumors. The government’s paranoia-infused way of fending them off: blow-by-blow descriptions of Berdymhamedov’s vacation activities, old videos of him, videos of him bowling, and even a video in which we’re to believe he’s driving, in real time, around a flaming crater in the Karakum desert.
Then, as suddenly as he disappeared, on August 12, Berdymuhamedov turned up at the Caspian Economic Forum, putting the rumors to rest, for now.
The other story in Turkmenistan about trying to prove people are alive is not at all amusing. It concerns about 100 people who were arrested, convicted in closed trials, and have since disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons. Their families have had no contact with them since their arrest, in some cases for 16 years. No visits. No letters. No phone calls. No answers from the government about where they are, or even whether they’re dead or alive.
Among them is a former foreign minister, another is a former ambassador. Many were accused of involvement in coup attempt in 2002, some are accused of religious extremism. For many, their prison terms should have ended by now.
After years of international criticism, in 2018, the Turkmen government allowed unprecedented, short family visits to around a dozen recently arrested prisoners who had been held incommunicado. It also accepted numerous recommendations by the United Nations Human Rights Council to address these enforced disappearances.
But it has yet to do the simple thing that could start dispelling criticism. It doesn’t involve improbable, elaborate videos. It is simply to allow the families to communicate with and visit their loved ones, and to release those who’ve served their sentences.