Events of 1994

Human Rights Developments

Continued government repression brought a virtual end to what little remained of free speech in Turkmenistan this year. The January 15 referendum gave an implausible 99.9 percent approval to President Saparmurad Niyazov's guaranteed presidency, which is to continue without elections until 2004. More dissidents fled the country under threat of arrest and continued harassment, the handful of dissidents remaining in Turkmenistan were all but silent, and no protest rallies took place. Reportedly, the government also enforced the death penalty widely to inhibit nonconformist behavior, although exact data have not become internationally available.

On December 28, 1993, a court in the capital, Ashgabat, sentenced dissident Karadzha Karadzhaev to three years of imprisonment on what were believed to be fabricated charges of slander, malfeasance in office and embezzlement. The court then released him under an October 1993 presidential amnesty, following four months of imprisonment. Mr. Karadzhaev later emigrated to Ukraine fearing further persecution. On July 2, Momma Seiitmurad, one of the leaders of Turkmenistan's moribund opposition, died under suspicious circumstances in Ashgabat. Opposition leaders cited the government hospital's refusal to conduct an autopsy as evidence that it was a political killing. Not only dissidents in Ashgabat but dissidents who had fled to Moscow reported that security agents intensified surveillance of their homes immediately following the death. The beating of outspoken dissident and Radio Liberty correspondent Murad Esenov on October 4 on a Moscow street further fueled suspicion that the Turkmenistan government was involved even in Moscow in the persecution of its critics.

The government gave high-profile attention to the enforcement of the death sentence, ostensibly as part of an anti-crime campaign. State television – the only television – broadcast at least one execution. Official statistics concerning the number of executions in 1994 were unavailable, but reliable and confidential sources reported that the number was higher than in the recent past. In addition, one resident, Orazguly Khanov, told Human Rights Watch that on June 8 a court in the capital executed his son for murder, for which he claims the procurator framed him in exchange for a bribe. The Procuracy declined to comment on the case. However, reported violations of due process and mistreatment of the family, raise suspicion about the fair conduct of the trial. The elder Mr. Khanov reported that the court barred both him and witnesses to the crime from attending the trial. In a grim reminder of Soviet practice, the prison did not inform the family of the execution. Mr. Khanov reported that when his family went to the Procuracy on July 3 to confirm rumors of the death, authorities detained them, including small children, without charges for seven hours.

State censorship reduced local media to government mouthpieces, and the government blamed funding shortages for the nearly complete absence of information from abroad. In September, the government subsumed Edebiiat ve sungat, the newspaper of the Writer's Union, under presidential control and closed the newspaper Subbota, according to one journalist to punish their insufficient praise of President Niyazov.

Efforts to correct years of discrimination against ethnic Turkmen resulted in discrimination against non-Turkmen instead in 1994. Job advertisements in newspapers requested applications only from ethnic Turkmen. The government also refused to register the Russian-speaking community organization with no explanation.

The Right To Monitor

Economic limitations and fear of government reprisals made human rights reporting possible only from outside the country. Some local victims and activists preferred to travel to Moscow at great expense to convey information about abuse rather than to risk reprisals for reporting from within the country. Even outside of Turkmenistan, security forces were believed to have harassed monitors in Moscow this year.

No foreign monitors were known to have attempted an investigation in Turkmenistan this year.

U.S. Policy

According to the State Department, U.S. representatives raised human rights concerns at every meeting it held with Turkmenistan counterparts this year. The administration also identified grave human rights concerns in the section on Turkmenistan of the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993. Among other things, the State Department concluded that "Turkmen authorities severely restricted civil and political liberties." However, the U.S. government's failure to condemn these abuses publicly outside the scope of the annual report gave the impression that it was neglecting the country's appalling repression of elementary human freedoms.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki

Our goal this year was to gather accurate information about developments in this closed society. We did not conduct a site investigation because local activists indicated they feared reprisals for speaking with us. We did, however, promote the concerns of Turkmenistan's Russian-speaking community by arranging meetings between its leaders and concerned individuals in the Russian Foreign Ministry.

This 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.