Turkmen NGOs Face Tighter Financial Regulation
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||17 December 2009|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Turkmen NGOs Face Tighter Financial Regulation, 17 December 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4b307e86c.html [accessed 23 April 2014]|
New rules designed to prevent money-laundering could be used to monitor and obstruct civil society groups.
By Dovlet Ovezov in Ashgabat (RCA No. 598, 17-Dec-09)There are fears that new banking rules in Turkmenistan will make life even harder for the small number of non-government groups still operating in Turkmenistan.
The Central Asian state's parliament passed a law at the end of August setting out measures to prevent money-laundering and the funding of terrorism, and is expected to amend other pieces of legislation accordingly by the end of this year.
A special agency is being set up to monitor transactions and report anything suspicious to the security services. It has sweeping powers to require banks to provide it with details of their clients' accounts and transactions, and also to request information from other government institutions like the justice ministry and the customs and immigration agencies.
Any non-government organisation receiving foreign funding over a certain level - as yet unspecified - will be subject to investigation. The same applies if the NGO is deemed to be engaging in activities not explicitly envisaged in its founding documents.
The lack of clarity around these issues has alarmed local NGOs, which believe the regulations will be misused by the authorities in order to squeeze them out of existence, especially if they are working on topics regarded as politically suspect, like human rights.
Tajigul Begmedova, who heads the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, a human rights group based in Bulgaria, told IWPR that while every country needed laws to prevent illegal money flows, the danger in Turkmenistan was that they would become an instrument for monitoring and pressuring NGOs.
"In an authoritarian state, an official only needs to find a pretext for the pressure to begin," she said. "Especially given the fact that the authorities are not keen on the activities of NGOs."
Officially-registered NGOs in Turkmenistan tend to be government-sponsored institutions working on behalf of women, children or war veterans, or else semi-commercial ventures.
Truly independent groups working on human rights, media or environmental issues are not encouraged. No independent NGO has been granted registration in the last five years, so such groups operate informally and keep a low profile.
Members of such groups are under constant surveillance. Their phones are tapped, their emails screened, they are often summoned for questioning by the security services if they travel abroad, and may be placed under house arrest if a foreign delegation visits the country.
In this atmosphere of intimidation, signs that the authorities are about to trawl through bank accounts may be enough to scare some NGOs off applying for foreign grants.
An Ashgabat resident who has been working on a library project for which he has received a small grant said he did not want to face undergoing checks under counter-terrorism laws.
"If that happens, I will abandon the project," he said."
Others drew parallels with the kind of intrusive checks already carried out by the tax service, which they said placed any organisation under considerable strain.
"Our taxmen are a special breed," said one activist in Ashgabat. "They do what they want. They may launch an inspection dating back ten years, when it's impossible to prove anything; or they may lose documents and not return them for a year. And over the ten years I've worked with an NGO, I have seen all the techniques they use for extorting money."
An analyst in the Turkmen capital said much of the uncertainty about the latest legal changes stemmed from lack of clarity about how much income an NGO had to receive before its accounts became subject to scrutiny and investigation.
However, a lawyer from the International Centre for Non-Commercial Law in Turkmenistan, did not share this concern, saying it was just a matter of time before the authorities announced the minimum funding level for checks.
"There's no reason to worry," he said, adding that with the legal framework in place, the new financial agency would specify the precise limit, below which NGOs would be exempt from scrutiny.
Dovlet Ovezov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Turkmenistan.
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