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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Turkmenistan

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Turkmenistan, 30 January 1996, available at: [accessed 25 November 2015]
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 its President and his closest advisors, made little progress 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, remained in office. The Democratic Party, the old Communist Party under a new name, retained a monopoly on power; the Government registered no opposition parties in 1995 and continued to repress all opposition political activities. Emphasizing stability over reform, the President's nation-building efforts centered on developing Turkmen nationalism and glorification of the President. In practice, the President controls the judicial system.

The Committee on National Security (KNB) has 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. These agencies have been responsible for human rights abuses in enforcing the Government's policy of repressing political opposition.

Turkmenistan continued to have a centrally planned economy, although the Government continued to take small steps toward a transition to a market economy. The country has the world's fourth largest reserves of natural gas and is heavily dependent on revenue from gas exports. Seeking fuller economic independence, it is considering construction of new gas pipelines to or through a number of countries, including neighboring Iran and Afghanistan. Agriculture, particularly cotton cultivation, accounts for nearly half of total employment. According to statistics of the International Monetary Fund, Turkmenistan has a gross domestic product of $516 per capita.

The Government continued to commit human rights abuses. Turkmen authorities severely restricted political and civil liberties. Dissidents Mukhammetkuli Aimuradov and Khoshaly Garayev were sentenced to 15 and 12 years' imprisonment for participating in the work of an antistate organization and for plotting to kill the President. Other political dissidents were jailed and beaten. Security forces continued to beat suspects and prisoners, and prison conditions remained poor and unsafe. The Government completely controlled the media, censoring all newspapers and rarely permitting criticism of government policy or officials. The Government generally gave favored treatment to ethnic Turkmen over minorities and to men over women. Women experience societal discrimination, and domestic violence against women appears common.

Respect for Human Rights

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

In June a man arrested in Ashgabat on suspicion of passing counterfeit money reportedly died from injuries sustained while in police custody. Others are also believed to have died as a result of beatings inflicted by the police during interrogations (see Section 1.c.). The Government denies that any extrajudicial killings have occurred, and no investigations or prosecutions have taken place.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The 1992 Constitution makes illegal torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. While systematic torture was not known to have occurred, the beating of criminal suspects and prisoners was widespread. In February while in detention at the Ministry of Internal Affairs political dissident Mukhammed Aimuradov was severely beaten and required hospitalization with two broken arms. Forced confessions are common.

Prisons are unsanitary, overcrowded, and unsafe. Food is poor, and facilities for prisoner rehabilitation and recreation are extremely limited. Government representatives have admitted that some prisoners have died due to overcrowding and lack of adequate protection from the severe summer heat.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Those expressing views critical of or different from those of the Government have been arrested on false charges of committing common crimes. On July 12, at least 80 persons were arrested after participating in a peaceful protest march. The Government claimed that all those who demonstrated were under the influence of narcotics or alcohol. On July 19, the security forces arrested poet and journalist Mukhammed Muradliev, reportedly on suspicion of organizing the July 12 demonstrations. Five days later, his colleague and fellow journalist, Yowshan Anagurgan, was arrested, reportedly for the same reason.

On December 27, the trial of Muradliev, Anagurban and 25 others connected with the demonstration began in secret. The two journalists were convicted of hooliganism. The other defendants were all convicted, too, on as yet unknown charges. Twenty of the 27 tried and convicted, including the two journalists, were subsequently granted amnesty and released.

The Government occasionally uses forced exile. In January 1994, the authorities temporarily exiled political activist Durdymurad Khojamukhamed to Baku, Azerbaijan, without either his consent or due process. Almost all prominent political opponents of the present Government have chosen to move to either Moscow, Stockholm, or Prague for reasons of personal safety. Forced exile was not known to have occurred in 1995.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution theoretically established judicial independence; however, the President's power to select and dismiss judges subordinates the judiciary to the Presidency. The court system has not been reformed since Soviet days. It consists of a Supreme Court, 6 provincial courts (including 1 for the city of Ashgabat only), and at the lowest level, 61 district and city courts. A Supreme Economic Court hears cases involving disputes between state economic concerns and ministries. There are also military courts, which handle crimes involving military discipline, criminal cases concerning military personnel, and crimes by civilians against military personnel.

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.

The law provides for the rights of due process for defendants, including a public trial, the right to a defense attorney, access to accusatory material, and the right to call witnesses to testify on behalf of the accused. In practice, these rights are often denied by authorities. The accused has the right to select counsel, but there are no independent lawyers, with the exception of a few retired legal officials. 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. Even when due process rights are observed the authority of the prosecutor vis-a-vis the defense attorney is so great that it is very difficult for the defendant to receive a fair trial.

In June opposition members Mukhammet Aimuradov and Khoshali Garaev were tried in a closed session of the Supreme Court for conspiracy to assassinate the President. Both were arrested in Uzbekistan in October 1994 and subsequently extradited to Ashgabat under a treaty that the Government of Turkmenistan had yet to sign. Neither the public nor international observers were allowed to observe the trial. Both defendants were found guilty and were sentenced to 15 and 12 years respectively in a maximum security prison. The Government has yet to make public any credible evidence of the guilt of either Aimuradov or Garaev. The charges against the pair are widely believed to be fabricated.

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

The Constitution provides for the right of protection from arbitrary interference by the State 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, electronic eavesdropping, and the recruitment of informers. Critics of the Government, and many other people as well, 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. Russian language newspapers from abroad are routinely confiscated at international airports.

The Government prohibits the media from reporting 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 opposing 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 has in the past expelled members who have criticized government policy; libraries have removed their works. Intellectuals have reported that the security organs have instructed them to praise the President in their art and have warned them not to participate in receptions hosted by foreign diplomatic missions.

Critics of the Government in all fields were frequently reminded that continued criticism could lead to many repercussions including the loss of employment and opportunities for advancement. In the past, children have been dismissed from school and adults have been removed from their jobs because of the political activities of relatives.

On occasion, the authorities resorted to stronger methods to silence their critics. On August 10, dissident Khudaiberdy Khalliev was abducted by assailants believed linked to the security organs. After being driven to the desert, Khalliev was severely beaten and abandoned. In July two journalists were arrested, reportedly on suspicion of organizing protest demonstrations (see Section 1.d.).

Almost all prominent political opponents of the present Government have chosen to leave the country for reasons of personal safety (see Section 1.d.).

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Government restricts these rights. 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 based on nationality or religion.

Theoretically, citizens 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 July 12, the authorities dispersed a peaceful demonstration arresting over 80 participants. Over 20 people were tried in secret on December 27 (see Section 1.d.).

c. Freedom of Religion

Citizens of Turkmenistan are overwhelmingly Muslim, but Islam does not play a dominant role in society, in part 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 ended, and the State generally respects religious freedom.

A modest 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 its Council on Religious Affairs, which 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 enforced this requirement or denied registration to any religious groups.

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. The Government does not restrict the travel of clergy or members of religious groups to Turkmenistan. Islamic religious literature is distributed through the mosques. Orthodox churches 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, although travel to the border zones is tightly controlled. 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 place of residence is registered and noted in passports.

The Government uses its power to issue passports as a means of restricting international travel for its critics. Exit visas are required for international travel and most ordinary travelers find the process of obtaining passports and exit visas to be difficult. Many allege that officials solicit bribes in exchange for permission to travel abroad.

While most citizens are permitted to emigrate without undue restriction, some government opponents have often been denied the opportunity to emigrate. For example, although journalist Mamedniyaz Sakhatov and five members of his family were granted refugee status by the United States, the Government refused to issue the documents the family needed to emigrate. Some ethnic Russians and other non-Turkmen residents, including some Jews, left for other former Soviet Republics, Germany, and Israel during 1995.

The government-funded Council of World Turkmen provides assistance to ethnic Turkmen abroad who wish to return to Turkmenistan and apply for citizenship. The Government, however, has not permitted many ethnic Turkmen from Iran, Afghanistan, and other countries to resettle in Turkmenistan. Authorities also tend to discourage the influx of non-Turkmen workers from other areas of the former Soviet Union.

Turkmenistan is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees and has yet to develop a written policy on people seeking refugee status. In July however, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) established an office in Turkmenistan and the Government has cooperated with it and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. There were no reports of forced expulsion of those having a valid claim to refugee status.

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

The 1992 Constitution declares Turkmenistan to be a secular democracy in the form of a presidential republic. In practice, however, 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 Party of Turkmenistan (successor to the 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.

A 1994 national referendum extended the President's term to 2002, obviating the need for the scheduled presidential election in 1997. According to the official results, 99.9 percent of those voting cast their ballots to extend his term. In the 1994 elections for a reconstituted Mejlis (Parliament) no opposition participation was permitted. The Government claimed that 99.8 percent of all eligible voters participated.

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, President Niyazov's power is absolute. Despite appearance of consensus, all decisions are made at the President's level. The Mejlis routinely supports presidential decrees and has no genuinely independent authority, although it has taken several measures to become a more professional body.

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 policy of the Democratic Party, according to its leadership, is to implement the policy of the President.

Women are underrepresented in the upper levels of government. Women currently serve as the Deputy Chairman of the Parliament and as the Permanent Representative to the United Nations. There are no women, however, in the positions of greatest authority such as the Cabinet of Ministers or provincial governors.

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

There are no local human rights monitoring groups, 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 in Russia and have contact with international human rights organizations. On numerous occasions in the past the Government has 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

Article 17 of the Constitution provides for equal rights and freedoms for all, independent of one's nationality, origin, language, and religion. Article 18 specifies equal rights before the law for both men and women. There is no legal basis for discrimination against women or religious or ethnic minorities. Cultural traditions and the Governments's policy of promoting Turkmen nationalism, however, limit the employment and educational opportunities of women and nonethnic Turkmen.


Domestic violence against women appears to be common, but, no statistics are available.

Despite constitutional provisions, women are underrepresented in the upper levels of state economic enterprises and are concentrated in health care, education, and service industries. Women are restricted from working in some dangerous and environmentally 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 pressures often limit opportunities for women to enter outside careers and advance their education. Religious authorities, when proffering advice to practicing Muslims on matters concerning inheritance and property rights, often favor men over women.

There are no women's groups in Turkmenistan. The Women's Council of Turkmenistan, a carryover from the Soviet system, was disbanded following the election of the new Parliament in December 1994. The professional businesswomen's organization now is no longer active. The Government has no program specifically aimed at rectifying the disadvantaged position of women in Turkmen society, as it does not believe that women suffer discrimination.


Turkmenistan's social umbrella 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. During the annual cotton harvest, children as young as 10 are sometimes taken from schools to work in the cotton fields. Other than this, there is no pattern of societal abuse against children.

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 complete, however, and most older buildings are not so equipped.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Constitution provides for equal rights and freedoms for 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 Kazaks, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and many other ethnic groups. Since independence, Turkmenistan has been spared the ethnic turmoil that afflicted many 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 provides for the right of speakers of other languages 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 the other ethnic groups, 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 that some avenues for promotion and job advancement are no longer open to them. Only a handful of non-Turkmen occupy high-echelon jobs in the ministries, and government employees from minority ethnic groups are sometimes assigned lesser positions than their experience and qualifications would warrant.

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 joined the International Labor Organization in late 1993.

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 1995. The state-sponsored unions control key social benefits such as sick leave, health care, maternal, and childcare benefits, and funeral expenses. Deductions from payrolls to cover these benefits are transferred directly to the Federation.

The law does not prohibit strikes, but strikes are extremely uncommon. In July workers at a state carpet factory went on strike to protest the fact that they had not been paid for several months. The strike ended the same day after the authorities threatened the strikers with dismissal. No other strikes are known to have occurred.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The 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 involving 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, and workers often go months without receiving their salaries.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced labor. Although the Government apparently had abandoned its policy of requiring students to pick cotton at minimal rates of pay during the annual harvest, schools ordered hundreds of students to work in the cotton fields. In certain areas those who refused to work were not allowed to graduate or in some instances were held back. No other incidents of compulsory labor were reported.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

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

Fifteen-year-old children may work 4 to 6 hours per day but only with the permission of the trade union and parents. This permission rarely is granted. 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 a market basket of commodities reviewed by the Ministry of Economics and Finance. On January 1, the Government increased the minimum wage, but subsequent devaluations reduced the value of the wage to $.50 (1,000 manats) per month. This figure falls far short of the amount required to meet the needs of an average family. Most households are multigenerational, with several members receiving salaries, stipends, or pensions. Even so, many people lack the resources to purchase an adequate diet, and meat is a luxury for most of them.

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. Some agricultural workers are subjected to environmental health hazards. The Government recognizes that these problems exist and has taken some steps to deal with them but has not set comprehensive standards for occupational health and safety.

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