Dear Secretary Clinton,

We are writing in advance of your June 23 meeting with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov in Washington, DC. We hope that you will use this critical opportunity to convey an unambiguous message that respect for human rights will play a key role in the United States' relationship with Turkmenistan. This is an important way to ensure that the U.S. relationship with Turkmenistan is predicated not only on energy and regional security interests but on broader concerns. By raising human rights concerns frankly and directly during your first meeting with Mr. Meredov, you would be demonstrating the United States' profound concern for the people of Turkmenistan.

The U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices accurately describes the bleak situation in Turkmenistan. This letter outlines key human rights concerns in Turkmenistan, many of them reflected in the Country Reports, and includes recommendations on some issues that can be resolved immediately.  The appendix provides information about specific cases of great concern. 

The need for systemic reform

Since President Berdymukhamedov came to office in late 2006, he has taken some measures to dismantle some of the most excessive, ruinous social policies of the Niazov era. His government has initiated constitutional reform, allowed several individuals to travel abroad who had previously been banned from doing so, and released a handful of political prisoners. Berdymukhamedov has received due credit for these critical steps. But Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive countries in the world, and it is difficult to underestimate the importance of sending a message that the government can and should fully break with the repressive practices of the Niazov era.

The December 2008 review of Turkmenistan by the United Nations Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) indicated the direction this change should take. The Council raised a range of concerns about continued repression; the full set of its initial recommendations, if fulfilled, would provide a solid foundation for countering the practices of the past.

The Turkmen government accepted a number of the UPR recommendations - including acting against any form of harassment and intimidation of journalists, ensuring effective freedom of worship for all religious communities, and taking effective measures to allow nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register and work freely.

But the government merely undertook to "consider" many others, including "allowing access to the country for UN special procedures, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other independent monitors,  . . .protecting human rights defenders from persecution and guaranteeing their right to work freely,  . . . adopting all necessary measures for the liberalization and plurality of the media,  . . . ending the practice of governmental appointment of editors to all media outlets, removing restrictions on the ability of the journalists to report and criticize government policy, and ending torture in places of detention." It also chose to outright reject a number of key recommendations, such as the release of political prisoners, a transparent review of the political cases of past years, holding an independent inquiry into the death in prison of journalist Ogulsapar Muradova, and the lifting of travel bans on human rights defenders. 

We hope that you will send a message that while systemic reform needed to break with the past will take time, the initiative for change must come urgently. We hope that you will urge Meredov to commit to fully implementing all recommendations made during the Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Council. 

Fundamental freedoms

Independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media cannot operate openly, if at all in Turkmenistan. There are numerous instances in which independent activists and journalists have been subjected to threats and harassment by security services. For example, in spring 2009, customs officials searched two civil society activists for nearly two hours at the Ashgabad airport before allowing the activists to board a flight abroad. The officials, who stated they had an order to search the activists, temporarily confiscated their USB drives.

In addition, burdensome requirements remain in place for the registration of NGOs. Among them is the requirement to have support from a governmental agency, which violates the right to freedom of association. To the best of our knowledge, in 2007 and 2008 several organizations applied unsuccessfully for registration and the only independent NGO that has been registered in the last two years is an association of gardeners. 

The United States should urge Turkmen authorities to:

  • Allow independent NGOs to work without improper  government interference, and ease registration requirements, beginning with abolishing the requirement that NGOs secure the support of a government agency; and
  • Allow independent media outlets to function without interference.

Freedom of religion

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, who visited Turkmenistan in September 2008, stated in her report that "although the situation has much improved since 2007, individuals and religious communities, both registered and unregistered, remain under close scrutiny and still face a number of difficulties when manifesting their freedom of religion or belief." The special rapporteur raised concerns "about the imposition of legal or policy restrictions by the authorities of Turkmenistan on registration, places of worship, religious material, religious education and proselytism." She issued several recommendations to the Turkmen government, including: "removing from legislation the prohibition on unregistered religious activities and undue restrictions on religious material, education and attire as well as ceasing obstruction with regard to the building, opening, renting or use of places of worship by religious communities."

Excessive restrictions on the right to freedom of religion remain in Turkmenistan. Despite the special rapporteur's recommendation, to date no alternative civilian service to compulsory military service exists. At least three members of Jehovah's Witnesses are serving suspended sentences for refusing to take part in active military service, the most recent one sentenced in April 2009.

The United States should urge that Turkmen authorities implement all recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, including by:

  • Removing from legislation the prohibition on unregistered religious activities and undue restrictions on religious material, education, and attire;
  • Ceasing obstructions with regard to the building, opening, renting, and use of places of worship;
  • Ensuring representation of religious minorities in the Council of Religious Affairs and changing its functions to become a facilitation and not monitoring mechanism;
  • Initiating reforms in the judiciary to offer effective legal means of redress and compensation for denial of fundamental freedoms;
  • Offering an alternative civilian service for those who refuse to perform military service owing to their religious beliefs; and
  • Providing law enforcement officials and representatives of local authorities with adequate training in order to raise awareness about international human rights standards.

Freedom of Movement

One of the positive steps taken by the Turkmen government in 2007 was the abolition of the system of special permits previously required for residents of Turkmenistan who wished to travel in border areas of Turkmenistan. Human Rights Watch is also aware of at least nine individuals who were on so-called exit ban lists during the Niazov era who were allowed to travel abroad in 2007. But reports persist that dozens of others continue to face arbitrary restrictions on travel abroad. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any cases in which the previously existing ban on travel abroad was removed in 2008-09.

Meanwhile, we have on file cases in which new bans on travel abroad were recently imposed. While these individuals have not received any official explanation of the reasons why they may not travel abroad, it appears that they were banned due to their own civic activism or due to their status as relatives of exiled civic and political activists. In the appendix to this note, Human Rights Watch lists several individuals who to our knowledge are not allowed to leave Turkmenistan.

We hope the United States will urge Meredov to abolish any bans on travel abroad for Turkmen citizens, including Andrey Zatoka, Svetlana Orazova, Ovez Annaev, Rashid Ruzimatov, Irina Kakabaeva, Shageldy Atakov and his family, Sazak Begmedov, Ilmyrat Nurliev, children and other relatives of Ogulsapar Muradova, and Gulgeldy Annaniazov as well as relatives of other dissidents and activists.

Political prisoners

Human Rights Watch has publicly welcomed the release of approximately 20 people-believed to have been imprisoned for political reasons-in pardons granted in 2007. We are pleased that Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, who for 14 years was a political prisoner, was released on May 2 after serving his full prison term. His release renews our concern that during the Niazov era untold numbers of people may have been imprisoned for political reasons. It is a worrisome indication that pardons conducted in 2008 and 2009 included only one person imprisoned on politically motivated charges (activist Valery Pal, arrested in February 2008). The Turkmen government has given no indication that it would undertake a nationwide, transparent review to indentify such cases and provide effective remedies to individuals who may have been unjustly prosecuted. 

While a nationwide review would require time to conceptualize and implement, a commitment to such a process can be achieved immediately. No less urgent is the need to release from prison those individuals whose criminal prosecution is believed to have been politically motivated. These include Annakurban Amanklychev, and Sapardurdy Khajiev; whose cases are detailed in the appendix to this note. The appendix also includes information about two individuals whose arrest and imprisonment appear to be politically motivated.

The Turkmen government has not yet responded to calls by international organizations to disclose information about the fate and whereabouts of about 50 prisoners implicated in the alleged November 2002 attack on Niazov's life, including former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, his brother Konstantin Shikhmuradov, and the former ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Batyr Berdiev.

As noted above, Human Rights Watch remains concerned about unknown numbers of other prisoners who may continue to be held for political reasons in Turkmen prisons. Because of the lack of transparency in the Turkmen justice system, including closed trials and the absence of independent media reporting, it is impossible to arrive at a reliable number of political prisoners or evaluate the legitimacy of the charges laid against them. Human Rights Watch believes that the only way to resolve these outstanding issues is by establishing a nationwide process involving an impartial review of the criminal charges brought against political figures and dissidents, an evaluation of the fairness of criminal proceedings in such cases, and reparations for violations of human rights where appropriate, including all cases of illegal or arbitrary detention.

The United States should urge Meredov to:

  • Release all those imprisoned for political reasons. These would include Gulgeldy Annaniazov, Annakurban Amanklychev, and Sapardurdy Khajiev;
  • Disclose the whereabouts of Boris Shikhmuradov, Konstantin Shikhmuradov, Batyr Berdiev, and others convicted for their alleged involvement in the 2002 attack on Niazov; and
  • Establish a nationwide process to ensure a remedy for victims of injustice during Niazov's rule.

Access for human rights monitors

At least nine UN special procedures are denied access to the country, despite longstanding requests for an invitation from Turkmen government. To the best of our knowledge, no independent nongovernmental human rights monitors have been allowed to visit Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is one of very few countries in the world that has not allowed access to Human Rights Watch. Since 1999, when were last able to visit Turkmenistan, we have unsuccessfully requested access numerous times, most recently in May 2008.

We hope the United States will urge Meredov to:

  • Allow independent human rights, environmental, election monitoring, and rule of law promotion groups as well as organizations working to protect the interests of vulnerable groups to visit Turkmenistan and conduct their work unhampered and without reprisals against those with whom they come into contact;
  • Promptly extend invitations to all UN special procedures that have requested access to Turkmenistan, including those on torture, on education, on health, on human rights defenders, on the independence of judges and lawyers, on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, on violence against women, and on arbitrary detention;
  • Extend a standing invitation to all the UN special procedures.

The new Turkmen leadership has begun to make meaningful steps to undo the repressive policies of Niazov. The United States should set an example with Turkmenistan and show that it expects high human rights standards from its business partners, energy and otherwise.

Please accept our best wishes for a productive meeting with Foreign Minister Meredov.

Holly Cartner

Executive Director

Europe and Central Asia division

Tom Malinowski

Washington, DC advocacy director