(Berlin) – Turkmenistan’s authorities should immediately and unconditionally release a lawyer imprisoned on bogus charges that appear to be in retaliation for his alleged ties with activists abroad, 10 human rights organizations said today. The authorities should quash his conviction.
On September 29, 2020, in a closed trial, a court in Balkanabad sentenced Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, 48, a lawyer with a government oil and gas production office in the city of Balkanabad, to six years in prison on charges of hooliganism and intentional infliction of moderate bodily harm. Allaberdyev is currently in custody although his precise whereabouts are unknown.
“The trial and charges against Allaberdyev, and the surrounding circumstances, clearly suggest that the case is political,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should release him immediately and annul his conviction.”
The 10 groups are the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Crude Accountability, the Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, Democratic Civil Union of Turkmenistan, Freedom Files, Human Rights Watch, the Memorial Human Rights Center, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.
Allaberdyev’s arrest comes amid growing social tension in Turkmenistan and unprecedented protests among Turkmen living abroad.
Turkmenistan has an extremely repressive government. The country is utterly cut off from any independent human rights scrutiny. The authorities tolerate no dissent and subject people it suspects of disloyalty to surveillance, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment on trumped up charges following unfair trials. Torture and incommunicado detention are a serious concern. Dozens of people remain victims of enforced disappearances.
On September 5, police in Balkanabad arrested Allaberdyev for allegedly getting into a fight with another man. That day, when Allaberdyev and a friend were leaving a grocery store, the man attacked him and tried to provoke a conflict by arguing with Allaberdyev and grabbing him by the collar.
The police arrived quickly. The other man accused Allaberdyev of instigating the conflict, and then left. The police arrested Allaberdyev and took him to the police station, where the other man appeared with his arm bandaged. The police told Allaberdyev that he had injured the man’s arm and rejected Allaberdyev’s request to see the medical reports documenting the man’s alleged injury. Allaberdyev denied the allegations. A source close to the case said that officers of the Ministry of National Security from Ashgabat appeared and questioned Allaberdyev about alleged connections with activists involved in the Turkmen protest movement abroad. Allaberdyev denied these allegations.
The groups expressed serious concern about the lack of due process in Allaberdyev’s detention and trial. On September 5, police interrogated Allaberdyev in the absence of any legal representation. The authorities refused to allow his family to visit and rebuffed their attempts to deliver food and clothing parcels for him. The lawyer Allaberdyev’s family hired was granted access to him only on September 8. The authorities repeatedly rejected the lawyer’s requests for copies of the case materials.
On September 14, Allaberdyev’s wife, Satlykgul Allaberdyeva, following unsuccessful attempts to get any precise and credible official information about her husband’s arrest, requested written information about the official allegations against Allaberdyev and details surrounding his arrest from the Balkan provincial prosecutor’s office.
On September 16, the office referred the request to the head of the Balkanabad city police department. She has received no response.
On September 24, a police investigator refused to provide one of Allaberdyev’s relatives any information about the formal charges against Allaberdyev, saying that he “can only share the case documents with the lawyer.” A source close to the case said the relative immediately arranged a phone conversation between Allaberdyev’s lawyer and the investigator. After a brief phone conversation, the lawyer, citing health problems, withdrew from the case.
The family tried unsuccessfully to hire another lawyer. Lawyers they approached refused to take on the case, most likely out of concern for government reprisals. The source said that one lawyer told them that “The case is political and is under the control of Ashgabat. Any lawyer [who takes on the case] may have problems.”
The groups also received credible reports that Allaberdyev was under surveillance the week before his arrest.
The Turkmen authorities have in the past used fake administrative hooliganism charges to retaliate against perceived critics.
Allaberdyev’s trial on September 29 was closed to his relatives and the public. The witnesses initially invited to testify were never called in to the courtroom. During the trial, Allaberdyev refused the services of a government-appointed lawyer. In light of the total lack of transparency and accountability in Turkmenistan’s criminal justice system, the institution of government-appointed lawyers cannot ensure effective and adequate legal representation, the groups said.
Because Allaberdyev does not have a lawyer and his family is not allowed to speak or visit with him, as well as authorities’ complete refusal to provide them any information on the case, the family has had difficulty getting official information about his case. On October 13, staff of the Balkanabad city court denied a request of Allaberdyev’s wife for a copy of the court ruling. The staff told her that her husband received the court decision and that she has no right to it. Under Turkmen law, only defendants, victims, civil plaintiffs, and their lawyers may receive copies of court rulings.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Turkmenistan is a party, protects the rights of individuals to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly. Turkmenistan is also bound under the ICCPR to respect the right to a fair trial.
Turkmenistan's international partners, in particular the United States, the European Union (EU) and EU member states should press Turkmenistan to free Allaberdyev immediately and quash his baseless conviction, the groups said. They should also press Turkmen authorities to stop harassing people on mere suspicion of connections or interests in the activities of critics abroad, and to refrain from persecuting and intimidating Turkmen citizens at home or abroad in retaliation for their peaceful activism.
“By targeting Allaberdyev for alleged links to Turkmen activists’ movement abroad and prosecuting him on bogus charges, the Turkmen government is demonstrating its complete disrespect for basic rights and freedoms,” said Tadzhigul Begmedova, director of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. “Turkmenistan’s international partners should remind the authorities about their binding international obligations and send a clear signal that the continued crackdown would lead to serious consequences.”