In 2010 the Turkmenistan government continued a return to the repressive methods of a previous era. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has ruled Turkmenistan for nearly four years, since the 2006 death of dictator Saparmurad Niazov. During his first two years in office, Berdymukhamedov began to reverse some of Niazov's most ruinous social policies. But then his course appeared to reverse. The government increasingly repressed NGOs and Turkmen activists, and prevented citizens from leaving the country; indeed freedom of movement sharply declined in 2009 and 2010. Instead of continuing needed reforms in education in 2010, the government introduced burdensome requirements for students seeking to travel abroad for university, and allowed "Ruhnama" (The Book of the Soul), Niazov's propaganda book, to remain a subject in university entrance exams. Instead of expanding access to the internet and other media, the government blocked websites and banned the import of some printed materials. Prisons remained closed to the outside for observation. Turkmenistan continued to expand relations with foreign governments and international organizations, but with no meaningful outcomes for human rights.
The repressive atmosphere makes it extremely difficult for independent NGOs to operate. Almost no organizations have applied for registration in recent years.
On September 30, 2010, Berdymukhamedov instructed the Ministry of National Security to lead an "uncompromising fight against those who slander our democratic... secular state." His speech came the day after a satellite channel broadcast an interview with exiled Turkmen activist Farid Tukhbatullin, chair of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR). In subsequent days hackers disabled the website of the TIHR, and there were credible threats that the Turkmen security services planned to physically harm Tukhbatullin.
In June 2010, the authorities in Turkmenistan began questioning the former classmates and teachers of Tukhbatullin's sons. At least three were threatened with treason charges if they maintained ties with the family.
In December 2009 Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) decided to close its Turkmenistan office after the Turkmen authorities repeatedly rejected project proposals, making it impossible for the organization to carry out its work in the country. MSF was the last remaining international humanitarian organization operating in Turkmenistan.
Within Turkmenistan, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations can carry out seminars and offer technical assistance, but little more.
In 2010, for the third year in a row, the Turkmen delegation tried to bar exiled Turkmen activists from registering for the OSCE human dimension review conference and walked out when the activists were admitted to the conference.
There continues to be a complete absence of media freedoms. Almost all print and electronic media are controlled by the state. Reporters from foreign media outlets often cannot access the country and, in recent years, local stringers for foreign outlets have been beaten, harassed, and otherwise intimidated.
Many websites are blocked, internet cafes require visitors to present their passports, and the government monitors electronic communications.
It is extremely difficult to obtain foreign newspapers and magazines with any political content. Border guards are known to confiscate foreign printed materials. In August 2010 Berdymukhamedov stated that there were enough publications issued in Turkmenistan to "satisfy domestic demand," so "there is no need to import any," indicating that access to foreign publications would remain limited.
Freedom of Movement
Turkmen authorities arbitrarily interfere with people's right to travel abroad through an informal and arbitrary system of travel bans, commonly imposed on activists and relatives of exiled dissidents.
On July 16, 2010, Turkmen border officials stopped Umida Jumbaeva, an activist, from leaving the country for Kazakhstan. Jumbaeva had helped environmental activist Andrei Zatoka in 2009, when he was arrested on false charges, given an unfair trial, and expelled from Turkmenistan. On June 28, Turkmen authorities barred civic activists Annamamed and Elena Miatiev from traveling abroad for medical treatment. Following an international outcry the couple was allowed to depart on July 10.
For years Radio Liberty stringer Gurbansoltan Achilova and her family endured various forms of harassment by the authorities and were barred from foreign travel. Her son Mukhammetmyrat, who had repeatedly been denied permission to travel abroad, committed suicide on June 12, 2010. One month later the family received a letter from the Turkmen migration services granting him permission to travel.
In 2009, the authorities prevented hundreds of students bound for foreign private universities from leaving the country, and introduced new, burdensome requirements for studying abroad. By August 2010, many of the students were able to depart, except those pursuing their studies at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan (AUCA). Throughout 2010 the Ministry of Education, the border services, and the migration service failed explain why students could not leave for study at AUCA; to written requests for information, students received a standard reply of "request declined." By September 2010 the government banned people from leaving the country if they had valid Kyrgyz visas in their passports.
In July 2010 the Turkmen government barred Turkmen citizens who also held Russian passports from traveling to Russia unless they had Russian visas. Turkmenistan abrogated its dual citizenship treaty with Russia in 2003, but had allowed holders of Russian passports to use them for travel to Russia unitl July 2010.
Political Prisoners and the Penitentiary System
As in previous years, in 2010 it was difficult to determine the number of political prisoners because of the wall of secrecy that surrounds their detention. Well-known political prisoners include Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who worked with human rights organizations, and political dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov.
A report published jointly in February 2010 by two independent human rights groups in exile highlighted serious problems in Turkmenistan's prison system, including overcrowding, degrading treatment of inmates, corruption, and lack of public oversight. In an unprecedented move, Berdymukhamedov responded to the report by acknowledging problems and promising reform. But amendments subsequently made to the criminal code did not address the report's main concerns. No international agency-governmental or non-governmental-has access to monitor Turkmen detention facilities.
Interference with Family Life
Turkmenistan has an unwritten policy against registering marriages of foreign nationals, which, combined with the difficulty of obtaining Turkmen visas, separates families. In April 2010, the authorities expelled to Uzbekistan approximately 30 female Uzbek nationals married to Turkmen men, along with their young children, who were born and raised in Turkmenistan.
In October 2009 a group of 500 ethnic Turkmen from Iran issued a statement against the separation of families of mixed Turkmen-Iranian families. The Iranian nationals said that Turkmen authorities refused to issue long-term visas to non-Turkmen family members.
Freedom of Religion
The government's undeclared campaign against terrorism has involved a crackdown on Muslims branded "Wahhabi,"a term the Turkmen government uses to defame followers of a more austere form of Islam and imply their association with terrorism. For example, in June a mullah in Dashagouz province received a three-year prison sentence after security services searched his home and found a fake grenade, which inexplicably vanished from the case materials. Police officers compelled all of the mullah's followers to shave their beards.
In April 2010 an Islamic cleric, Shiri Geldimuradov, was arrested with three of his sons, and all four were convicted on weapons possession charges. Geldimuradov's other four sons are also in prison on unknown charges. In June Geldimuradov died in prison.
The authorities raid sites of worship of unregistered religious groups. Forum 18, an independent, international religious freedom group, reported a raid on a Baptist congregation in Dashagouz in December 2009. Officials confiscated religious books, and congregants were questioned and pressured to sign statements promising to desist from worshipping with the congregation in the future. In June 2010 the authorities again pressured several members of that church to sign similar statements.
On October 21, 2010, a court sentenced Ilmurad Nurliev, head of the Light to the World Pentecostal Church, to four years in prison on what appear to be bogus swindling charges. The prosecution argued that Nurliev had swindled four people who visited a shelter run by the church, even though one of the alleged victims was in prison for much of the time the swindling allegedly took place, and two did not testify in court. The trial judge refused to allow all but three church members to testify for the defense, and the court failed to provide the defense with the written verdict in time to appeal. Light to the World worship services were raided in 2008, and Nuraliev and congregants have endured harassment by government agencies in recent years.
On June 20 the security services detained a group of 47 Protestants who had gathered in Geoktepe for two days of prayer and Bible study. The group was held overnight in a police station, questioned, and released.
The Turkmen government continues to imprison Jehovah's Witnesses for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, and at this writing holds at least eight in custody.
Key International Actors
Seeking to leverage Turkmenistan's energy wealth and strategic importance, several key international actors continued to mute criticism of the government's human rights record. The European Union in particular stood out for its failure to use the prospect of enhanced relations to advance concrete human rights improvements, pressing forward with a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), frozen since 1998 over human rights concerns, without requiring any human rights reforms in exchange. At this writing, the PCA was pending approval by the European Parliament. An initial draft opinion green-lighting the agreement stirred significant controversy.
The PCA also requires ratification by two national EU member state parliaments-France and the United Kingdom-before it can enter into force. In a welcome move, the French parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in April 2010 adopted a resolution requesting the government to refrain from submitting the agreement for ratification until it had secured certain human rights improvements, including the release of political prisoners Amanklychev and Khajiev.
During his early April visit to Turkmenistan, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was uncharacteristically outspoken about human rights concerns, highlighting in particular the need to allow access to the country for UN special rapporteurs and address prison conditions.
In a new country strategy for Turkmenistan, adopted in April, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) revised its policy of no public sector investment by reserving the right to increase its engagement with Turkmenistan. In a welcome move, the EBRD set specific human rights benchmarks for the government to fulfill, and made clear the bank's level of engagement would depend on Turkmenistan's progress in meeting them.