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Events of 2009

The Turkmen government tightened repression in this already extremely repressive and authoritarian country. While retaining excessive restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and religion, it embarked on a new assault on freedom of movement and the right to education by preventing dozens of students studying in private universities abroad from leaving the country.

The authorities released two political prisoners, one of whom had served his full prison term, but they arrested and convicted a well-known environmental activist on trumped-up charges, later releasing him on condition that he renounce his Turkmen citizenship and immediately leave the country. Untold numbers of people continue to languish in Turkmen prisons following unfair trials on what would appear to be politically motivated charges.

The government presents international interest in its hydrocarbon wealth as an expression of international support for President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's policies. A conflict that started in April 2009 between the Turkmen authorities and the Russian gas company Gazprom (over an explosion in a pipeline) served to intensify Western diplomacy aimed at convincing Turkmenistan to commit to supplying its gas via pipelines bypassing Russia.


The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) did not send a full election observation mission to the December 2008 parliamentary elections in Turkmenistan, stating that "the current political context does not allow for a meaningful competition." About 90 percent of the candidates were members of the Democratic Party, which is led by Berdymukhamedov and is the only political party registered in Turkmenistan. Non-party candidates were nominated by state-controlled groups. Nongovernmental groups in exile reported pressure on individuals not affiliated with the state who attempted to register as independent candidates.

Freedom of Expression and Civil Society Activism

Independent NGOs and media cannot operate openly, if at all, in Turkmenistan. No independent organization has been permitted to carry out research on human rights abuses inside the country, and no international agency-governmental or nongovernmental-has had access to detention facilities.

Independent activists and journalists continue to be 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 Ashgabad airport before allowing them to board a flight abroad. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US government-funded media outlet, reported that its correspondents' telephone lines were disconnected during the December 2008 parliamentary elections, and one of its correspondents was interrogated and threatened by state security officers the same month.

Andrey Zatoka, an environmental activist who for two years had been banned from traveling abroad, was arrested on October 20 in Dashoguz. Zatoka was attacked by a man without warning while shopping for food at a local market. When Zatoka turned to police officers nearby to report the incident, the policemen proceeded to arrest him. On October 29 Zatoka was convicted and sentenced to five years' imprisonment on false charges of "causing injuries of medium severity." Security services pressured Zatoka to renounce his Turkmen citizenship and leave the country as an unofficial condition for his release. On November 6 the appeals court commuted Zatoka's sentence to a fine equivalent of US$350, and Zatoka and his wife were forced to leave for Russia the next day.

Political Prisoners, Enforced Disappearances, and Deaths in Custody

The harsh repression that prevents civic activism impedes determining the number of political prisoners. Only two individuals believed to be imprisoned for political reasons have been released in the past 12 months-activist Valery Pal in December 2008, and longest-serving political prisoner Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, arrested in 1994 and having served his full prison term, in May 2009. Well-known political prisoners from the era of Berdymukhamedov's predecessor Saparmurad Niazov, including activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, remain behind bars. Also still imprisoned is the dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov, who was arrested in June 2008 upon his return from exile and sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment on unknown charges.

There is no information about the fate of Ovezgeldy Ataev (Niazov's constitutionally designated successor) and his wife, who were imprisoned in 2007 just after Berdymukhamedov became president. The fate of about 50 prisoners implicated in the alleged November 2002 attack on Niazov's life likewise remains unknown, including that of former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, his brother Konstantin Shikhmuradov, and the former ambassador to the OSCE, Batyr Berdiev. At least two persons serving prison terms after being purged from government service by Niazov died in prison in 2009 under unknown circumstances: Rejep Saparov, the former head of the presidential administration, and Khabibulla Durdyev, a former provincial governor.

Forum 18, an independent, international religious freedom group, reported that four Jehovah's Witnesses were imprisoned in 2009 for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience: Shadurdi Ushotov, sentenced on July 13 to two years; Akmurat Egendurdiev, sentenced on July 29 to one-and-a-half years; and brothers Sakhetmurad and Mukhammedmurad Annamamedov, who were given two-year suspended sentences in November 2008 but transferred to prison in May 2009 following a further court ruling.

Criminal Justice System

Turkmenistan adopted a new criminal procedure code in May. The code has limited progressive clauses related to juvenile justice, appeals, and admissibility of evidence. While declaring that human rights should be respected, the code does not provide any viable mechanisms for their protection: it does not contain habeas corpus guarantees; does not provide for judicial oversight of investigative actions or detention; provides only limited alternatives to pretrial detention; and lacks guarantees for presumption of innocence.

Freedom of Movement

In late July and August Turkmen authorities prevented hundreds of students from boarding planes and crossing land borders to depart for study abroad. Authorities told the students that they did not have appropriate documents to leave the country: The required documents included an invitation from the university, a copy of its license, verification of its state-affiliation status, and a copy of the contract between the student and the university. After weeks of uncertainty, the Turkmen government started to grant permission to leave, but generally to those studying at state-run foreign universities. Dozens of students studying in private universities abroad were not allowed to travel. According to the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, at least five students of a private university who tried to leave Turkmenistan in October where informed at the border that they are banned from foreign travel.

Other arbitrary restrictions on foreign travel remain in place and activists and relatives of dissidents are often targeted. Unlike in previous years when some individuals were allowed to travel, there were no reversals of travel bans in 2009. Still banned from foreign travel are Rashid Ruzimatov and Irina Kakabaeva, relatives of an exiled former government official; the daughter of Gulgeldy Annaniazov and her family; Shageldy Atakov, an active Baptist, and his family; Ilmyrat Nurliev, a Turkmen Evangelical Church pastor; and Svetlana Orazova, sister of exiled opposition leader Khudaiberdy Orazov. Her husband Ovez Annaev, who since June 15, 2008, was barred from traveling abroad for medical treatment, died in November 2009.

Key International Actors

Turkmenistan's vast energy wealth and proximity to Afghanistan continue to prompt Turkmenistan's international partners to actively engage with the Turkmen government and to refrain from making human rights improvements an integral part of this engagement.

The European Union in July 2009 formally approved an Interim Trade Agreement (ITA) that gives preferential treatment and promises broader upgraded relations with Turkmenistan. The agreement had been stalled by the European Parliament for more than two years due to human rights concerns. The EU foreign ministerial decision announcing the ITA made no reference to human rights concerns, despite the fact that the European Parliament's April resolution green-lighting the agreement as "a potential lever to strengthen the reform process in Turkmenistan" had highlighted a number of specific steps the Turkmen government should take. These included the need for unconditional release of all political prisoners; removal of all obstacles to free travel; free access for independent monitors; improvements in civil liberties, including for NGOs; and the ability of civil society to develop free from undue government interference; freedom of religion; and open and democratic elections.

In June the EU held its annual human rights dialogue with Turkmenistan, but failed to use it to publicly highlight concern about Turkmenistan's poor human rights record or to urge concrete human rights reforms.

United States officials have generally stated that human rights are an important part of the US government's engagement with Turkmenistan. The US administration issued a statement of concern regarding the arrest of Andrei Zatoka, and raised concern at a high level about students in US-sponsored programs being unable to travel. But there is no evidence that human rights issues were pursued in a manner that fully reflected the serious human rights concerns raised in the State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

In December 2008 Turkmenistan was reviewed under the United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism. The Turkmen government accepted a number of the 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 NGOs to register and work freely. But it merely undertook to consider several important recommendations such as access to the country for UN special procedures, protecting human rights defenders from persecution, ending the practice of government appointment of editors to all media outlets and removing restrictions on critical media reporting of 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 2006 death in custody of journalist Ogulsapar Muradova, and the lifting of travel bans on human rights defenders. To date there are no known steps taken by the Turkmen government to implement the UPR recommendations it accepted.