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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Turkmenistan

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Turkmenistan, 30 January 1994, available at: [accessed 28 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Turkmenistan, a one-party state dominated by the President and his closest advisers, made virtually no progress in 1993 in moving from a Soviet-era authoritarian style of government to a democratic system. Saparmurad Niyazov, head of the Communist Party since 1985 and President since October 1990 when the post was created, was elected President in a direct election on June 21, 1992. The Democratic Party, the old Communist Party under a new name, retained a monopoly on power; the Government registered no opposition parties in 1993 and continued to inhibit opposition political activities. Emphasizing stability over reform, the President's nation-building efforts centered on renewing Turkmen nationalism, a feature of which has been a personality cult around the President which continued to grow in 1993.

The Committee on National Security (KNB) took on the responsibilities formerly held by the Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB), with membership and operations essentially unchanged. The Ministry of Internal Affairs directs the criminal police, which works closely with the KNB on matters of national security.

Turkmenistan remained a centrally planned economy, although the Government took small steps toward a transition to a market economy. The Government announced a land privatization policy and continued to encourage private investment from abroad, including in the energy sector which was previously completely under government control. In October it ceased subsidizing most prices.

Turkmen authorities severely restricted political and civil liberties. They maintained strict controls over opposition political organizations and completely controlled the media, censoring all newspapers and rarely permitting criticism of government policy or officials. The Government used its powers to issue passports and exit visas as a means of restricting the movement of political opponents, and it inhibited attempts by foreign visitors to talk with its domestic critics. The Government generally gave favored treatment to ethnic Turkmen over minorities and to men over women.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killings

No political or extrajudicial killings are known to have occurred.

b. Disappearance

An economic editor of a government daily newspaper disappeared in June. The foreign press suggested that her disappearance may have had a political dimension. However, there was no evidence to support this allegation. The Government investigated the disappearance but did not report any results. It also restricted publicity about the case.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The 1992 Constitution prohibits torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and such practices are not known to have occurred.

Turkmen prisons are unsanitary, overcrowded, and unsafe. Food is poor, and facilities for prisoner rehabilitation and recreation are extremely limited.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

On two occasions in 1993, the Government temporarily detained political critics to prevent them from meeting with foreign visitors. In April the authorities briefly detained the cochairman of the opposition Agzybirlik movement to prevent him from meeting with a delegation from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). They held two others under house arrest. In August the authorities detained four opposition leaders for questioning after they met with a visiting U.S. Congressman. They held two others under house arrest to prevent their participation in the meeting and arrested a third while he was walking to the meeting site. In all cases, authorities questioned the detainees for a few hours and did not hold them overnight.

The authorities in August arrested an independent journalist, who had written critically about the Government for the Moscow press, and investigated charges that he had embezzled funds from the government enterprise which employed him. The journalist claimed the charges were trumped up in a government attempt to silence him. After more than 4 months of pretrial detention, the court heard his case and found him guilty. The authorities released the journalist after he signed an admission of guilt. He still maintains his innocence.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution theoretically established judicial independence; however, the President's power regarding the selection and dismissal of judges subordinates the judiciary to the Presidency. The court system in Turkmenistan has not been reformed since Soviet days. It consists of a Supreme Court, 6 provincial courts (including 1 for the capital city of Ashgabat only), and, at the lowest level, 61 district and city courts. There are also military courts to handle crimes involving military discipline, criminal cases concerning military personnel, and crimes by civilians against military personnel; and a Supreme Economic Court, which hears cases involving disputes between state economic enterprises and ministries. The President appoints all judges for a term of 5 years without legislative review, except for the Chairman (chief justice) of the Supreme Court, and he has the sole authority to remove them from the bench before the completion of their terms.

Turkmen law provides for due process rights for defendants, including a public trial, the right to a defense attorney, access to accusatory material, and the right to call witnesses. The accused has the right to select counsel, but there are few independent lawyers. When a person cannot afford the services of a lawyer, the court appoints one. A person may represent himself in court. Decisions of the lower courts may be appealed to higher courts, and in the case of the death penalty, the defendant may petition the President for clemency. In practice, adherence to due process rights is not uniform, particularly in the lower courts in rural areas.

There are no known political prisoners in Turkmenistan.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution provides for the right to protection from arbitrary interference in a citizen's personal life. However, there are no legal means to regulate the conduct of surveillance by the state security apparatus, which regularly monitors the activities of opponents and critics of the Government. Security officials use physical surveillance, telephone tapping, and electronic eavesdropping, and recruit informers. Critics of the Government report credibly that their mail is intercepted before delivery.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for the right to hold personal convictions and to express them freely. In practice, however, freedom of speech is severely restricted, and there is no freedom of the press. The Government completely controls radio and television. Its budget funds all print media. The Government censors all newspapers; the Committee for the Protection of State Secrets must approve all prepublication galleys. The Government also refuses to allow the media to report the views of opposition political leaders and critics, and it rarely allows the mildest form of criticism in print. The Government press has condemned the foreign media, including Radio Liberty, for broadcasting or publishing opposition views, and the Government has subjected those mentioned in critical foreign press items to threats and harassment.

The Government also restricts academic freedom. It does not tolerate criticism of government policy or the President in academic circles, and it discourages research into areas it considers politically sensitive. The government-controlled Union of Writers expelled members who have criticized government policy; libraries have removed their works.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Government restricts the freedom of peaceful assembly. Unregistered organizations, including those with a political agenda, are not allowed to hold demonstrations or meetings. No political groups critical of government policy have been able to meet the requirements for registration (see Section 3). Social and cultural organizations without political aims may normally register and hold meetings without difficulty. Those with an ethnic or religious orientation may, however, be refused registration under constitutional provisions that prohibit political parties and other organizations based on nationality or religion.

Citizens theoretically have the freedom to associate with whomever they please. However, supporters of opposition movements have been fired from their jobs for political activities, removed from professional societies, or threatened with dismissal or with the loss of their homes or work space. On numerous occasions in 1993, the Director of the KNB and a Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers summoned political opponents to warn them not to meet with foreigners or give press interviews. The Government also limited the access of foreigners to Islamic leaders and often insisted that a government official sit in on any meetings.

c. Freedom of Religion

Turkmen are overwhelmingly Muslim, but Islam does not play a dominating role in society, largely due to the 70 years of repression under Soviet rule. The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and does not establish a state religion. Official harassment of religious groups has largely ended, and the State generally respects religious freedom. A revival of Islam has occurred since independence. The Government has incorporated some aspects of Muslim tradition into its efforts to define a Turkmen identity, and it gives some financial and other support to Islamic groups.

The Government's Council on Religious Affairs plays an intermediary role between the government bureaucracy and religious organizations. Religious congregations are technically required to register with the Government, but there were no reports that the Government prevented those that had not yet complied from practicing their faith. Nor were there any reports that attempts to register religious groups were denied.

There is no law specifically addressing religious proselytizing. The Government, however, would have to grant permission for any mass meetings or demonstrations for this purpose and would not do so for nonregistered groups. The Government does not restrict the travel of clergy or members of religious groups to Turkmenistan. Islamic religious literature, largely donated from abroad, is distributed through the mosques. Orthodox churches also offer a variety of Christian religious literature.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government does not generally restrict movement within the country. Turkmen citizens still carry internal passports, which are used more as a form of identification than a means of controlling movement. Residence permits are not required, although the place of residence is registered and noted in internal passports.

The Government uses its power to issue passports and exit visas as a means of restricting international travel for its critics. Although legally the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for issuing passport and exit visas, the International Department of the Presidency must also signify its approval. The Government denied travel documents to three human rights advocates who wanted to travel to the United States to attend a conference in April. It used similar tactics to prevent a prospective intern with Radio Liberty from traveling to Germany and an opposition journalist from attending a conference in the Netherlands.

Citizens of Turkmenistan are permitted to emigrate without undue restriction. Russians and other non-Turkmen residents left for other former Soviet republics during 1993, and members of the small Jewish community continued to emigrate to Israel.

The government-funded Council of World Turkmen provides assistance to ethnic Turkmen abroad who wish to return to Turkmenistan and apply for citizenship. A large number of refugees from the turmoil in Tajikistan fled to Turkmenistan in 1992-93. The Government provided housing and social assistance. Most were ethnic Turkmen, and some were Uzbeks with historical ties to Turkmen territory. The Government deported some ethnic Tajik refugees who entered Turkmenistan.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution declares Turkmenistan to be a secular democracy in the form of a presidential republic. In practice, it remains a one-party state dominated by the President and his closest advisers within the Cabinet of Ministers. Citizens have no real ability peacefully to change the government and have little influence on government policy or decisionmaking. In the 1992 presidential election, the sole candidate was Saparmurad Niyazov, the incumbent and nominee of the Democratic (formerly Communist) Party. The Government announced the election barely a month before voting day, giving opposition groups insufficient time to organize and qualify to submit a candidate. Niyazov was elected to a 5-year term with, according to government statistics, 99.5 percent of the vote.

The members of the Mejlis (Parliament) were elected for 5-year terms in 1990 under the old Communist system which allowed little popular participation in the selection of candidates. The Parliament passed a resolution on December 28 calling for a national referendum on January 15, 1994, on whether to extend the President's term of office for an additional 5 years, thereby canceling the 1997 presidential election.

The Constitution calls for the separation of powers between the various branches, with concomitant checks and balances. However, it vests a disproportionate share of power in the Presidency, particularly at the expense of the judiciary. In practice, the President, in concert with his Cabinet of Ministers, makes all policy decisions, appoints government officials down to the level of city mayors, and decides which legislation will be considered by the Mejlis. The Mejlis has no genuinely independent authority.

Government officials state that their goal is political pluralism and the establishment of a multiparty system, perhaps as soon as 1996. However, there were few indications in 1993 that the present leadership will permit any meaningful opposition to develop. In addition to its near total control over the flow of information, the Government also uses laws on the registration of political parties to prevent the emergence of would-be opposition groups. At present the only registered party is the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the successor to the Communist Party. The policy of the Democratic Party, according to its leadership, is to implement the policy of the President.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There are no local human rights monitoring groups in Turkmenistan, and government restrictions on freedom of speech, press, and association would preclude any effort to investigate and criticize publicly the Government's human rights policies. Several independent journalists report on these issues in the Russian press and have contact with international human rights organizations. Midlevel government officials met with a visiting Helsinki Watch delegation in May, providing assistance in making appointments and permitting meetings with opposition elements. A month earlier, however, the Government had detained some of its critics and attempted to prevent members of a CSCE delegation from meeting with opposition leaders. The Government also on numerous occasions warned its critics against speaking with visiting journalists or other foreigners wishing to discuss human rights issues.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status


The Constitution provides for full equality for women. In practice, women are greatly underrepresented in the upper levels of government and state economic enterprises and are concentrated in health care, education, and service industries. Women are restricted from working in some dangerous and ecologically unsafe jobs. Under the law, women are protected from discrimination in inheritance and marriage rights. In traditional Turkmen society, however, the woman's primary role is as homemaker and mother, and family pressure often limits opportunities for women to enter outside careers and advance their education. Among practicing Muslims who seek the advice of religious authorities on matters concerning inheritance and property rights, men often take precedence over women.

The Women's Council of Turkmenistan, a carryover from the Soviet system, addresses issues of concern to women, and a professional businesswomen's organization has recently been founded. While no reliable statistics on domestic violence against women are available, womens' groups and medical personnel say that it is not a major problem. Women are subject to harassment on the streets by males, and such incidents may be on the increase, particularly against women of non-Turkmen appearance. The Government has no program specifically aimed at rectifying the disadvantaged position of women in Turkmen society, as it does not believe women suffer discrimination.


Turkmenistan's social welfare umbrella adequately covers the welfare needs of children. The Government has not, however, taken effective steps to address the environmental and health problems that have resulted in a high rate of infant and maternal mortality, particularly in areas affected by the Aral Sea ecological disaster.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Constitution guarantees equal rights and freedoms to all citizens. Turkmen comprise 72 percent of the population of about 4 million, Russians 9.5 percent, and Uzbeks 9 percent. There are smaller numbers of Kazakhs, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and many other ethnic groups. In 1993 Turkmenistan was spared the ethnic turmoil that afflicted other parts of the former Soviet Union.

As part of its nation-building efforts, the Government has attempted to foster Turkmen national pride, in part through its language policy. The Constitution designates Turkmen the official language, and it is a mandatory subject in school, although not necessarily the language of instruction. The Constitution also guarantees speakers of other languages the right to use them. Russian remains in common usage in government and commerce. The Government insists that discrimination against Russian speakers will not be tolerated. However, efforts to reverse past policies that favored Russians work to the benefit of Turkmen at the expense of other ethnic groups and not solely ethnic Russians. Non-Turkmen fear that the designation of Turkmen as the official language will put their children at a disadvantage educationally and economically. They complain with justification that some avenues for promotion and job advancement are no longer open to them. Only a handful of non-Turkmen occupy high-level government jobs, and minority government employees are often shunted off to lesser positions than their experience and qualifications would warrant. The Ministry of Education, which controls access to numerous educational opportunities and exchanges, acted in flagrant violation of equal rights in insisting on reserving these opportunities for ethnic Turkmen males. Higher authorities, however, overturned many of its decisions.

People with Disabilities

Government subsidies and pensions are provided for those with disabilities, and those capable of working are generally provided with jobs under still-valid preindependence policies which virtually guarantee employment to all. According to existing legislation, facilities for the access of the disabled must be included in new construction projects. Compliance is not, however, complete, and most older buildings are not so equipped.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Turkmenistan has inherited the Soviet system of government- associated trade unions. The Federation of Trade Unions claims a membership of some 1.6 million and is divided along both sectoral and regional lines. Turkmenistan is not a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO). It has submitted an application for membership, but the ILO has not formally accepted the application.

While no law specifically prohibits the establishment of independent unions, there are no such unions, and no attempts were made to register an independent trade union in 1993. The state-sponsored unions control key social benefits such as sick leave, health care, maternal and childcare benefits, and funeral expenses. Automatic deductions from payrolls to cover these benefits are transferred directly to the Federation, raising uncertainty as to how or whether members of independent unions would be covered.

The law does not prohibit strikes, but none occurred in 1993. Disputes over working conditions and other grievances were resolved through negotiation among the trade union, government, and the employer (which represents, invariably, a state-owned enterprise).

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

Turkmen law does not protect the right to collective bargaining. The Ministry of Economics and Finance prepares general guidelines for wages and sets wages in health care, culture, and some other areas. In other sectors, it allows for some leeway at the enterprise level, taking into account local factors. Annual negotiations between the trade union and management determine specific wage and benefit packages for each factory or enterprise. In practice, in the predominantly state-controlled economy, the close association of both the trade union and the enterprise with the Government seriously limits the workers' ability to bargain. There are no export processsing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution specifically prohibits forced labor. No incidents of compulsory labor were reported in 1993. The Government has abandoned its past policy of requiring students to pick cotton at minimal rates of pay during the annual harvest.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for employment of children is 16; in a few heavy industries it is 18. The law prohibits children aged 16 through 18 from working more than 6 hours per day (the normal workday is 8 hours).

Fifteen-year-old children may work only with the permission of the trade union and their parents; this rarely is granted. Such children are permitted to work only 4 to 6 hours per day. Violations of child labor laws occur in rural areas during the cotton harvesting season, when teenagers work in the fields and children less than 10 years of age sometimes help with the harvest.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government sets the national minimum wage quarterly, based on the cost of a market basket of commodities reviewed by the Ministry of Economics and Finance. On November 1, with the introduction of a new national currency, the Government set new minimum wages at $75 (150 manats). This figure falls far short of the amount required to meet the needs of an average family. Most households, however, are multigenerational, with several members receiving salaries, stipends, or pensions.

The standard legal workweek is 40 hours. Turkmenistan inherited an economic system with substandard working conditions from the Soviet era, when productivity took precedence over the health and safety of workers. Industrial workers often labor in an unsafe environment and are not provided proper protective equipment. Agricultural workers in particular are subjected to ecological health hazards. The Government recognizes that these problems exist but has not moved effectively to deal with them.

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