U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Turkmenistan

    Turkmenistan, a one-party state dominated by the President and his closest advisers, made little progress in 1994 in moving from a Soviet-era authoritarian style of government to a democratic system. A national referendum held on January 15 extended until 2002 the term of office of Saparmurad Niyazov, head of the Communist Party from 1985 to its dissolution and President since October 1990 when the post was created. The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the old Communist Party under a new name, retained its monopoly on power; the Government registered no opposition parties in 1994 and by its actions continued to inhibit opposition political activities. Only government-approved candidates were permitted to contest the December 11 parliamentary elections, in which all 50 candidates ran unopposed. Emphasizing stability over reform, the President's nationbuilding efforts continued to focus on renewing Turkmen nationalism, a feature of which has been a personality cult around the President. 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 remained a centrally planned economy, although the Government continued to take small steps to reduce state intervention, e.g., by phasing out the state order system. Turkmenistan is the world's fourth largest producer of natural gas and is heavily dependent on revenue from natural gas exports. Payment problems by its major customers in the former Soviet Union have led it to consider construction of new gas pipelines to or through neighboring Iran. Agriculture, particularly cotton cultivation, accounts for nearly half of total employment. Turkmen authorities continued severely to restrict political and civil liberties and maintain tight controls over opposition political organizations. They completely controlled the media, censoring all newspapers and rarely permitting criticism of government policy or officials. All trade unions are government controlled. The Government generally gave favored treatment to ethnic Turkmen over minorities and to men over women.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

Political activist and underground journalist Durdymurad Khojamukhamed disappeared in mid-July. On June 26, six assailants believed to be linked to the security apparatus beat him severely (see Section 2.a.). It is not known if he is in custody, has fled abroad, or is in hiding.

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

The 1992 Constitution prohibits torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. While systematic torture was not known to have occurred in 1994, criminal suspects, prisoners, and witnesses are routinely beaten both before and after trial processes. Agents of the security apparatus have also used force to suppress political opposition (see Section 2.a.). Turkmen prisons are unsanitary, overcrowded, and unsafe. Food is poor and facilities for prisoner rehabilitation and recreation are extremely limited. In August an outbreak of cholera reportedly struck the Bairam Aly prison facility.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

In several cases, government agents detained or arrested persons associated with the Moscow-based opposition and warned them not to engage in political activities. On October 29, several days after the President called for the extradition to Turkmenistan of several Turkmen dissidents, authorities in Uzbekistan arrested two individuals associated with the Turkmen opposition, Mukhammad Aimuradov and Khoshali Garaev, and deported them to Turkmenistan. Although the two men, both Russian citizens, were originally charged only with the illegal transfer of money from Turkmenistan, the Government eventually announced its intention to try them in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate the President. At year's end, security organs were holding them pending trial. On October 20, security authorities took journalist Iusup Kuliev from his home and detained him for over 2 weeks, apparently without formal charges. They reportedly beat him while in custody and subjected him to pyschotropic drugs. At year's end, he was under house arrest in his home in Ashgabat. The authorities detained at least three other people-- Khudaiverdy Khally, Akhmukhammed Zapirov, and Mukhammed Garachishiev--for several days, apparently without formal charges, around the time of the October 27 Independence Day celebration. 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 Moscow for reasons of personal safety.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution theoretically established judicial independence; however, the President's power regarding the selection and dismissal of judges effectively 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 capital city of Ashgabat only), and at the lowest level, 61 district and city courts. There are also military courts, which handle crimes involving military discipline, criminal cases concerning military personnel, and crimes by civilians against military personnel; and a Supreme Economic Court, which hears cases involving disputes between state economic enterprises and ministries. 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. Turkmen 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. 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 almost impossible for the defendant to receive a fair trial. Mukhammad Aimuradov and Khoshali Garaev (see Section 1.d.), who were to be tried on charges connected to an alleged assassination plot, were arrested and held on charges that appeared to be politically motivated. There are no other known political prisoners. Some opponents of the Government have charged that the authorities occasionally prosecute political opponents for economic crimes they did not commit.

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

The Constitution provides that a citizen has the right to protection from arbitrary interference in his or her 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 recruit informers. Critics of the Government and other citizens 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. In September the President publicly called for the punishment of those who spread "rumors."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 involved in critical foreign press items to threats and harassment. The Government 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. In the past the government-controlled Union of Writers has expelled members who criticized government policy; libraries have removed their works. Critics of the Government in all fields were frequently reminded that continued criticism could have many repercussions, including the loss of employment and opportunities for advancement for themselves and their families. In at least one case, the authorities dismissed a child from school because of public statements made by the father. In another case, a woman was removed from her job because of her exiled father's political activities. On rare occasions the authorities resorted to stronger methods to silence their critics. During the January 15 national referendum on extending the presidential term of office, they arrested Valentin Nikolaevich Kopusov immediately after he tore up his ballot in the presence of election officials. Kopusov, who has a history of erratic behavior, was placed in a psychiatric hospital pending determination of his mental health. After several months Kopusov was declared mentally ill and transferred to another hospital. On the night of June 26, six assailants, believed to be connected to the security apparatus, broke into the home of political activist and underground journalist Durdymurad Khojamukhamed. They abducted him, severely beat him, and left him in a ditch at the side of a road see Section 1.b.). On November 24, Russian authorities in Moscow, reportedly at the request of the Government of Turkmenistan, took into custody Murad Essenov and Khalmurad Suyunov, two journalists associated with the Moscow-based Turkmen opposition. Although no charges were known to have been filed against the two, the Government reportedly sought their extradition in connection with the same alleged assassination plot for which two others were arrested in Ashgabat (see Section 1.d.). Russian authorities released Essenov and Suyunov on December 21. In October six or seven men had accosted Essenov on a Moscow street and beaten him. Opposition leaders claimed the assailants were linked to Turkmen security organs.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Government restricts the freedom of peaceful assembly. 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. However, the authorities often refuse registration to those with an ethnic or religious orientation 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 and removed from professional societies or threatened with dismissal or with the loss of their homes or work space. On numerous occasions in 1994, the Director of the KNB and a deputy chairman of the Cabinet summoned political opponents and warned them not to meet with foreigners or give press interviews. The Government also discourages the access of foreigners to Islamic leaders, often by insisting that a government official sit in on any meetings.

c. Freedom of Religion

Turkmen are overwhelmingly Muslim, but Islam does not play a dominating 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 largely 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 the 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 group. There is no law specifically addressing religious proselytizing. The authorities, however, did cut short the planned stay of two American citizens, apparently because of their proselytizing activities. Also, the Government would have to grant permission for any mass meetings or demonstrations for this purpose and would not do so for nonregistered groups. The Government does not restrict the travel of clergy or members of religious groups to Turkmenistan. Islamic religious literature, largely donated from abroad, is distributed through the mosques. Eastern (or Russian) Orthodox churches also offer a variety of Christian religious literature.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation.

The Government generally does not restrict movement within the country, although it tightly controls travel to the border zones. Turkmen 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 and exit visas as a means of restricting international travel for its critics, and most ordinary travelers find the process to be difficult. Many allege that officials, including some on the presidential staff, solicit bribes in exchange for permission to travel abroad. Although legally the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for issuing passport and exit visas, the International Department of the Presidency and the security services must also signify their approval. Citizens are generally permitted to emigrate without undue restriction. In December Turkmen authorities denied journalist Mamedniyaz Sakhatov and his family the passports and exit visas they needed to emigrate to the United States. Some ethnic Russians and other non-Turkmen residents left for other former Soviet republics during 1994. 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 discouraged the influx of non-Turkmen workers from other areas of the former Soviet Union. In mid-March, Turkmen police detained and immediately expelled as many as several thousand nonresident workers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Ukraine.

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, it remains a one-party State dominated by the President and his closest advisers within the Cabinet. 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 (formerly 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. On January 25, a national referendum extended Niyazov's term in office until 2002, obviating the need for a presidential election in 1997. The referendum was announced only on December 28, 1993, again allowing insufficient time for any opposition to organize. According to the official results, 99.9 percent of those voting cast their ballots to extend Niyazov's term. On December 11, 1994, elections were held for a reconstituted Mejlis (parliament). Again, no opposition participation was permitted. Candidates for the 50 seats were all approved by the ruling party, and all ran unopposed. The Government claimed that 99.8 percent of 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, the Presidency in concert with the Cabinet of Ministers makes all policy decisions, appoints government officials down to the level of city mayors, and decides which legislation the Mejlis will consider. The Mejlis has no genuinely independent authority. Government officials state that their goal is political pluralism and the establishment of a multiparty system, perhaps as soon as 1996. However, there were few indications in 1994 that the present leadership will permit any meaningful opposition to develop. In addition to its almost total control over the flow of information, the Government also uses laws on the registration of political parties to curb the emergence of would-be opposition groups. At present the only registered party is the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the successor to the Communist Party. The policy of the Democratic Party, according to its leadership, is to implement the policy of the President.

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


The Constitution provides for full equality for women. In practice, however, women are greatly underrepresented in the upper levels of government and state economic enterprises and are concentrated in health care, education, and service industries. Women are also restricted from working in some dangerous and ecologically unsafe jobs. In traditional Turkmen society, the woman's primary role is as homemaker and mother, and family pressure often limits opportunities for women to enter outside careers or advance their education. The law protects women from discrimination in inheritance and marriage rights. Religious authorities, when proffering advice to practicing Muslims on matters concerning inheritance and property rights, often favor men over women. The Women's Council of Turkmenistan, a carryover from the Soviet system, addresses issues of concern to women, and a professional businesswomen's organization has recently been founded. While no reliable statistics on domestic violence against women are available, women's groups and medical personnel assert that it is not a major problem. The Government has no program specifically aimed at rectifying the disadvantaged position of women in Turkmen society because it does not believe that women suffer discrimination.


Turkmenistan's social welfare umbrella adequately covers the welfare needs of children. The Government has not, however, taken effective steps to address the severe environmental and health hazards that have resulted in a high rate of infant and maternal mortality, particularly in the Aral Sea area.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Constitution provides for equal rights and freedoms to 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 Kazakhs, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and many other ethnic groups. In 1994 Turkmenistan was spared the ethnic turmoil that afflicted many other parts of the former Soviet Union. As part of its nationbuilding 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 guarantees speakers of other languages the right to use them. Russian remains in common usage in government and commerce. The Government insists that it will not tolerate discrimination against Russian speakers. 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 minority government employees from other ethnic groups are sometimes assigned lesser positions than their experience and qualifications would warrant.

People with Disabilities

Government subsidies and pensions are available to those with disabilities, and those capable of working are generally provided with jobs under still-valid preindependence policies that virtually guarantee employment to all. According to existing legislation, facilities for access by the disabled must be included in new construction projects. Compliance is not complete, however, and most older buildings are not so equipped.

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. No attempts were made to register an independent trade union in 1994. 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 no strikes are known to have occurred in 1994. Disputes over work conditions or other grievances were resolved through negotiation among the trade union, government, and management (which represents, invariably, a government enterprise).

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Turkmen 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 between 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 effectively. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution specifically prohibits forced labor. Despite claims that several years ago the Government abandoned its policy of requiring students to pick cotton at minimal rates of pay during the annual harvest, thousands of high school students were forced to work in the cotton fields in 1994. No other incidents of compulsory labor were reported in 1994.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for employment of children is 16; in a few heavy industries it is 18. The law prohibits children aged 16 through l8 from working more than 6 hours per day (the normal workday is 8 hours). Fifteen-year-old children may work only with the permission of the trade union and parents; this rarely is granted. Such children are permitted to work only 4 to 6 hours per day. 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 July 1, the Government increased the minimum wage to $3.33 (250 manats) per month and increased it again to $4.55 (1,000 manats) on December 21. 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 and provides at least one 24-hour rest period. 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 ecological 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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