Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Turkmenistan

Political context

Whereas Mr. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, acting President since the death of the Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niazov on December 21, 2006, promised both continuity and a break line with the regime, and in particular liberal reforms in the field of rights and freedoms, Turkmenistan is still an authoritarian and repressive country. Indeed, Mr. Berdymukhammedov was elected on February 11, 2007 with 89.2% of the vote, a performance worthy of his predecessor. During the election, the Chairman of the Electoral Commission stated that "he would do everything" to ensure that Mr. Berdymukhammedov won the elections.1

In 2007, the new President introduced some important reforms: he re-established a number of social guarantees, in particular the retirement pensions Mr. Niazov had abolished at the end of 2006, he allowed freedom of circulation within the country, and he improved diplomatic relations, both with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and with the West.

Yet, these liberal measures seem more to reflect the will to change the outside image of the country than to introduce genuine reforms. As a matter of fact, in 2007 the human rights situation did not improve. The national media are still muzzled, the foreign press is still banned, the Internet is entirely controlled by the special police, and independent journalists are subjected to multiple acts of pressure and harassment. In addition, nothing is known of the fate of the political prisoners sentenced in 2003 for an "attempted attack on the life of President Niazov", whereas according to certain information, eight of them are said to have died in detention and the others would have been tortured. Lastly, the "black list" of persons banned from leaving the country apparently still exists, with 2,000 to 15,000 names, mainly of political and human rights activists.

Observing the human rights situation and denouncing violations: a high-risk activity

The international human rights organisations are still banned from settling on the Turkmen territory. What is even more serious is that there are very few national human rights NGOs operating in the country, and none of them have been able to obtain official registration. In addition, they have great difficulty in observing the situation regarding human rights and fundamental freedoms, as defenders are virtually unable to move freely throughout the country. Any contact between Turkmen defenders and foreigners can further be considered to be "treason", and liable to criminal prosecution. During official visits of foreign delegations, defenders are systematically placed under house arrest. For instance, before the visit of the OSCE delegation in February 2007, in support of the preparation of the February 11, 2007 elections, which had expressed the wish to meet the representatives of the civil society, several defenders were summoned to the Ministry of National Security and warned of the dangers that would ensue for them, were they to have contacts with the delegation. Likewise, in May 2007 during the visit of Ms. Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a person was arrested and over 10 persons placed under house arrest by the security services, including Ms. Natalia Shabunz, a member of the "Civic Assistance" association.

While the defence of human rights remains almost impossible, the activity is often carried out by a few independent journalists. In April 2007, for instance, the authorities refused Ms. Sona Chuli-Kuli, an independent journalist well known for her articles denouncing the situation of human rights in Turkmenistan, permission to leave the country to attend the Eurasian Media Forum in Alma-Aty. She was questioned by the national security service, the police searched her apartment and confiscated her computer; it was returned to her once she had signed a commitment not to work for foreign media.

Black-out on the fate of several human rights defenders held in detention

At the end of 2007, the Turkmen authorities had still not instigated an enquiry into the death in prison on September 14, 2006 of Ms. Ogulsapar Muradova, a correspondent of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. The circumstances of her supposedly "natural" death remained unclear, while the marks on her body would seem to indicate that her death was due to torture or ill-treatment. Nor has any official information been given regarding the fate of Mr. Annakurban Amanklychev and Mr. Sapardurdy Khajiev, members of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, arrested at the same time as Mr. Muradova following their collaboration with French journalists, and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for "illegal possession of ammunition".

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

1 See Press Release by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, February 14, 2007.


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