Human Rights Watch World Report 2001 - Turkmenistan

Human Rights Developments

As his cult of personality soared to new heights, President Saparmurad Niazov continued to crack down on political and religious dissidents, to restrict freedom of the press and of movement, and to eliminate even the trappings of democracy.

Turkmenistan defaulted upon its international commitments on political reform when at the end of 1999 its Parliament voted to remove term limits for the presidency, opening the way for Niazov to remain in the presidency indefinitely. Parliamentary elections, held in November, were neither free nor fair.

In August, police prevented two hundred village women from entering the capital where they intended to take their grievances directly to the president, according to the Moscow-based Information Center for Human Rights in Central Asia.

At the end of 1999, Turkmenistan abolished the death penalty, in one of several measures promoted by President Niazov to further human rights protection. In May, a law was passed "on banning searches in the homes of Turkmenistan's citizens" without judicial authorization. Niazov said the law responded to a reality in which law enforcement officials "could plant one or two grams of drugs or other things in some of those houses they were searching in order to take vengeance on people, and many people are being harmed in this case." Another decree reaffirmed the inviolability of private property, despite a continuing spate of official confiscations of private homes. Niazov also established a special "commission for ensuring legality."

Security forces arrested longtime political activist Nurberdi Nurmamedov, leader of the banned opposition political party Agzybirlik (Unity), on January 5. Nurmamedov was sentenced in February to five years in prison on fabricated charges of "hooliganism." Faced with the threat of a prison sentence for his son, who was also arrested, Nurmamedov was forced to make a televised request for the president's forgiveness. The KNB (State Security Committee, formerly the KGB) officials demanded that Nurmamedov's family state publicly that his case was not political, but "a purely criminal matter." The Information Center for Human Rights in Central Asia reported that Nurmamedov and two fellow political prisoners, Mukhametkuli Aimuradov and Pirikuli Tangrykuliev, underwent severe beatings in September.

Minority rights suffered in 2000 when the president issued new restrictions on the use of Russian for official business. Reportedly, the number of Russian speakers seeking to leave Turkmenistan increased significantly this year. The output of Uzbek language print and broadcast media for Turkmenistan's sizeable Uzbek minority in the east of the country also reportedly shrank.

An ominous June decree ordered the National Security Committee and other state agencies to maintain "strict control" over the movements of foreigners in the country. At least one foreign journalist was questioned by the KNB. In August, KNB officials contacted Radio Liberty stringer Saparmurad Ovezberdiev, whose activities had already been closely monitored, to tell him that he could no longer report for RFE/RL because he lacked accreditation, despite the permission granted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for RFE journalists to work there.

Turkmenistan became one of the world's strictest censors of the Internet when on May 29, the country's communications ministry unilaterally revoked the licenses of all five private internet service providers (ISPs), forcing all Internet use to run through the state monopoly provider.

The 1997 amendments to the Law on Religion, which effectively ban religious denominations aside from Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy remained in force, though Turkmenistan bowed to international pressure and promised to halt police raids on prayer meetings conducted in private homes. Turkmenistan continued to imprison religious believers, dismiss them from their jobs, confiscate religious materials, and destroy houses of worship. On November 13, 1999, Turkmen security forces bulldozed Ashgabat's Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Also in November, authorities rejected the application of the Turkmen Bible Society for registration, though the group reportedly met all of the official requirements.

In December, police and security officials detained Dmitrii Melnichenko and Mikhail Kozlov and beat, threatened, and tortured them in order to obtain information about the whereabouts of two Baptist pastors who were later deported. Police the same month raided Baptist churches in Turkmenabad (Chardjou), Mary, Turkmenbashi, and Ashgabat. Repression of protestant Christian groups appeared to have intensified in February, when the KNB raided several religious meetings held by protestant groups in private homes, and several in the congregation were subsequently fired from their jobs, according to the Keston Institute. Also in February, police sealed the premises of a building bought by Baptists for use as a house of worship in the town of Mary, and confiscated all of the religious literature inside. In October, local KNB arrested Seventh Day Adventist pastor Pavel Fedotov at a bible reading in Chardjou, charging him with holding an unsanctioned meeting and confiscating videotapes and other articles. He was released several days later.

By early in the year, Turkmen police had reportedly expelled the last remaining Russian Baptist missionaries in the country. Authorities forced the family of imprisoned Turkmen Baptist pastor Shahgildy Atakov into internal exile, while his brother was imprisoned on trumped-up administrative charges for fifteen days in March.

Muslim as well as Christian religious dissidents fell victim to persecution this year. In February, Turkmen authorities arrested Khoja Ahmed Orazgylych and charged him with unspecified economic crimes, in retaliation for his broadcast criticism on Radio Liberty's Turkmen service of the president's pronouncements on religion. While in custody, a letter purportedly signed by Orazgylych that begged the forgiveness of the president was published in the newspapers. The president publicly threatened to imprison the seventy-two-year-old Islamic scholar for twenty-five years, but on March 3, the president "commuted" Orazgylych's punishment to internal exile for an undefined term (no evidence is publicly available that any judicial proceeding ever took place). That very day, security forces removed Orazgylych and his family to the provincial town of Tejen and bulldozed his Ashgabat home and the mosque he had built on its grounds. President Niazov ordered all copiesof Orazgylych's Turkmen translation of the Koran to be burned. In April, Niazov decreed that all Muslim religious schools, save for a select few schools run directly by the state-controlled religious authority, the Muftiat, should be closed, in effect banning private Muslim religious education. As many as three hundred foreign Islamic preachers had reportedly been deported from Turkmenistan this year.

Academic freedom and recognition of the right to education reached a new low. The president called for three-generation "background checks" to determine potential university students' "moral character" before they are admitted to study. Niazov also abolished his country's World Languages University, ordered that the entire printing of a new Turkmen history textbook be burned, and decreed that foreign languages should no longer be taught in schools.

Defending Human Rights

Turkmenistan allows no domestic nongovernmental human rights organizations to exist. Nina Shmeleva, fifty-seven, a journalist and activist of the unregistered Russian Community of Turkmenistan who had attempted to assist ethnic Russians trying to emigrate from Turkmenistan, was forced to confess to "financial fraud" and was sentenced in May to five years in prison (her sentence was later reduced to a six-year probation).

The Role of the International Community

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

The OSCE pointedly refused to send even a scaled-down mission to observe Turkmenistan's parliamentary elections in December, and denounced the arrest of Nurberdi Nurmamedov. Its representative on freedom of the media criticized the life-presidency. Chairman-in-Office Benita Ferrero-Waldner visited Turkmenistan in May for talks on security, economics, the environment, and human rights, and invited Turkmenistan to participate in a multilateral project on resolving disputes over water use in the region, sponsored by the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the European Community, and the World Bank, an offer President Niazov promptly rejected. For the third year in a row, Turkmenistan refused to sign a substantive Memorandum of Understanding with the ODIHR, one of the conditions under which the OSCE had agreed to establish its Ashgabat office.

European Union

In November 1999 the European Union (E.U.) signed an Interim Agreement, extending full trade benefits to Turkmenistan, rendering almost meaningless the continued suspension on human rights grounds of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement ratification process. The E.U. also praised Turkmenistan's abolition of the death penalty, though its statement at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights session in March noted that human rights observance was "deteriorating."

United States

While the U.S. criticized high profile abuses, such as the arrest of Nurmamedov, statements were frequently delayed or downplayed so as not to interfere with negotiations on Turkmenistan's participation in the planned TransCaspian natural gas pipeline. The Clinton Administration ignored the recommendations of the U.S. government's Commission on International Religious Freedom to designate Turkmenistan as a country of particular concern, a step that could have triggered sanctions.

European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)

After President Niazov refused to meet a visiting EBRD delegation, the bank announced in April that it would halt all public sector lending to that country, citing Turkmenistan's refusal to implement "principles of multi-party democracy, pluralism and market economics," as required by the bank's charter. The bank had earlier cancelled a planned U.S. $50 million investment to upgrade one of the country's main highways.

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

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.