In 2008, Mr. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, President of Turkmenistan since the death in December 2006 of Dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, persisted in his willingness to break with some of the policies of his predecessor, and in particular to rehabilitate Turkmenistan, a major gas producer, on the international scene. In continuation of the policies of 2007, reforms were undertaken to prove that Turkmenistan was on the way of democratisation and worthy of being a commercial partner.1 These reforms remained, however, a façade. Among those reforms, a constitutional reform on September 26, 2008 formally gave citizens the right to form political parties and reiterated the right to property. This new Constitution, however, reinforces the power of the President, whose term of office changed from five to seven years and who now has the right to appoint directly regional governors.2 It also officially gives back to the Parliament, a body which in effect remains at the service of the President, the powers transferred in 2003 to the People's Council (Hal Maslahaty),3 thus strengthening the omnipotence of the Head of State.
The parliamentary elections scheduled for December 14, 2008 illustrated once more the gap between the President's declarations of intent, the texts, and reality. For the first time, independent candidates have had the theoretical possibility to run for election, but none of these independent candidates succeeded to register in practice,4 thus leaving room to candidates affiliated either with the ruling party or with other civil or political organisations controlled by the State.5
On the other hand, all public structures in Turkmenistan remained at the service of the regime and its ideology, and "justice" was actually used as a machine of repression against human rights defenders and political opponents. Although some political prisoners were released in 2008, no proceedings were initiated to review their cases, and widespread releases had not yet occurred. Many political prisoners remained detained arbitrarily and would reportedly suffer mistreatment and torture in full secrecy.6
All official media, whose leaders are appointed by the President, were closely monitored and censored, and foreign press was still prohibited. In addition, the February 3, 2003 Decree from the People's Council entitled "Unlawful acts considered as high treason and penalties incurred by traitors", was still in force. Accusations of high treason, with its still vague definition, could be used amongst others to sue defenders, in particular independent journalists who risked sentences that range up to life imprisonment.
In general, the constant pressure against dissidents, human rights defenders and independent journalists did not diminish in 2008, as they continued to undergo regular psychological pressure, provocation, risk of arbitrary arrests, or illegal questioning. A number of them and their families were also prevented from leaving the country, with authorities conducting meticulous control of the reasons for their leaving. In reality, the situation of human rights was still catastrophic and the Turkmen State remained the most repressive in the region.
Denial of the freedom of association
Since the death of President Niyazov in late 2006, Turkmen civil society has hoped for a softening of laws on freedom of association. However, the especially restrictive "Law on Public Associations", which organises the creation, registration, activities and liquidation of NGOs, was not amended, and the number of NGOs was therefore limited: in total, there were seven independent NGOs out of the 89 registered. In fact, only NGOs close to the Government were allowed to register: the only officially registered NGO since the arrival to power of President Berdymukhammedov – the Organisation of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs – was fully created by the President. The creation of such organisations with pure screening functions allows those in power to deny any legal existence to emerging or pre-existing independent organisations that have the same statutory purposes. In addition, administrative measures were designed to make the registration of independent organisations effectively impossible: a payment of 1.5 million manat (about 80 Euros) is required whether the response is positive or negative, as well as a letter of support from the Ministry, making it unfeasible to establish any truly independent association.7 Many independent NGOs were victims of such measures in 2008.8
Harassment of human rights defenders in contact with foreigners and activists in exile
In 2008, any advocacy for human rights -whether carried out within or outside the country – was met with repression by Turkmen authorities. No independent, intergovernmental or non-governmental organisation was authorised in 2008 to carry out research on violations of human rights committed within the country.
In 2008, this repression tended to increase in the run-up and following consultations with the EU, international meetings and elections. In April 2008, following a EU high-level meeting in Ashgabat, a wave of harassment affected many defenders in Turkmenistan and in exile. The apparent objective of the authorities was to update information sources on Turkmenistan used by NGOs and media based abroad, particularly those of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), based in Vienna (Austria). In addition, several defenders were placed under house arrest, detained and had their telephone and Internet lines cut to prevent them from meeting with representatives of foreign Governments and international organisations visiting Turkmenistan.
Finally, during 2008, Turkmen defenders remained virtually unable to leave the territory. Such was the case of Mr. Andrei Zatoka, an environmental activist, who encountered an unmotivated order of refusal to leave the territory from the Attorney General, although he was scheduled to go to a meeting in Moscow organised by the International Social and Ecological Union and holds a Russian passport.9
Increased repression against journalists human rights defenders and the independent media
Despite the wishful thinking expressed by the President in 2007, censorship of the Internet increased in 2008, with the strengthening of filters blocking access to websites of dissidents and human rights defenders, as well as websites critical against the regime. Fifty websites were banned, and email closely controlled, to capture articles transmitted abroad, criticising, inter alia, the policies of the regime on human rights. Independent journalists who reported about human rights violations also remained subjected throughout the year to arbitrary arrest and sometimes ill-treatments. Acts of repression were mainly directed to the correspondents of the Turkmen branch of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), to compel them to end their professional activities. Family members were not spared from such activities. For instance, Mr. Sazak Durdymuradov, independent correspondent for RFE/RL in the city of Bakhaden, specialising in education and constitutional reforms, was arrested on June 20, 2008 and placed in a psychiatric clinic, where he was beaten and tortured in order to sign a declaration asserting that he was ending his cooperation with RFE/ RL. He was finally released on July 4, 2008 under pressure from human rights organisations and international diplomats. However, as of the end of 2008, his safety and that of his family remained threatened.10
In addition, at the end of 2008 the Ministry of National Security was reportedly in the process of compiling a database of independent journalists, including those who left the country. Throughout 2008, raids occurred in several editorial offices in order to collect personal data of former employees and be granted access to archives. Senior editors or journalists were interrogated about former contributors. They were asked not only the names of their former colleagues, but also their current addresses and activities, as well as the names of the persons with whom the expatriate journalists remain in contact in Turkmenistan. One of the special services officers revealed during a raid that the President had been outraged by the publication of articles on the Internet referring to the lack of freedoms in Turkmenistan, and emphasising the social concern in the country. The President would thus have ordered to find at any price their authors in order to retaliate.11
Finally, as of the end of 2008, Turkmen authorities had still not opened any enquiry commission into the death of Ms. Ogulsapar Muradova, a journalist with RFE who passed away in prison in September 2006, and no information could be obtained about the situation of Mr. Annakurban Amanklychev or Mr. Sapardurdy Khadjiev, who were arrested at the same time as Ms. Muradova and sentenced on August 25, 2006 to seven years in prison for having taken part in the preparation of a documentary in Turkmenistan for the TV programme "Envoyé spécial", on the French television channel France 2.
Urgent Intervention issued by the Observatory in 200812
|Names of human rights defenders
|Date of Issuance
|Messrs. Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev
|December 15, 2008
1 On December 2, 2008, the European Commission launched the procedure for approval of an interim trade agreement with Turkmenistan.
2 In theory, they are appointed locally. It is a formal strengthening of the powers of the President.
3 The People's Council was the supreme body of Turkmenistan until September 2008, with more than 2,500 members. It included the President, who led the Council, deputies to the Parliament (Majlis), the President of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, Government officials, elected representatives, local leaders of authorities, associations, and delegates nominated by the staff of public companies and institutions.
4 Independent candidates were pressured at the local level. Most of the time, no official reason was given for the refusal of their candidacy.
5 Pursuant to the campaign, NGOs in exile revealed very low voting participation. The official figure is 94% participation, but the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) estimates participation to be between 3% and 20%.
6 See TIHR.
8 Their name is not mentioned so as not to endanger their members.
9 See TIHR.
10 See RFE/RL.
11 See TIHR.
12 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.