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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

 

Amnesty on Turkmenistan

Amnesty International has a detailed new report on Turkmenistan. Some excerpts:

Amnesty International is concerned about the grave human rights situation in Turkmenistan.

Civil and political rights are severely restricted. Independent civil society groups are unable to operate openly and independent political parties do not exist. Religious minorities are under tight state control. Civil society activists, political dissidents, members of religious minority groups as well as their families have been subjected to human rights violations including harassment, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, and imprisonment after unfair trials. At least one man has been forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital solely to punish him for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. Many dissidents, members of religious minorities and their families have been forced into exile in recent years and thousands are believed to be on a "black list" preventing them from leaving the country. According to credible reports, Turkmen Secret Service agents have in many cases tracked down exiled dissidents, in particular in Russia, to silence them by way of intimidation and assaults.

Amnesty International is also concerned that failed asylum-seekers forcibly returned to Turkmenistan might be at risk of being regarded as "traitors" simply because they left the country and applied for asylum abroad. As a result they would be at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment and imprisonment following unfair trials, to punish them for their actual or imputed political opinion.

Freedom of movement inside the country has been severely restricted. For example, since the year 2000 Turkmen citizens have had to obtain special permission from the police to travel to the regions bordering on neighbouring Uzbekistan. Procedures to obtain permission were tightened in September 2004 after a relative of an exiled opposition politician managed to obtain permission to enter the border regions and then fled to Uzbekistan.

Ethnic minorities such as Uzbeks, Russians and Kazakhs are discriminated against including through dismissal from their workplaces and through denial of access to higher education. President Niyazov stated in a speech broadcast in December 2002 that in "order to weaken the Turkmen, the blood of the Turkmen was diluted in the past. When the righteous blood of our ancestors was diluted by other blood our national spirit was low… Every person has to have a clean origin. Because of that it is necessary to check the origin up to the third generation." Over the last few years scores of senior officials belonging to ethnic minorities have been removed from their positions. Reportedly, people applying to institutions of higher education are checked to ensure that for the last three generations of their family there has been no non-ethnic Turkmen relative. It is practically impossible for anyone with a non-Turkmen relative in their family to be admitted to university.

Many foreign companies appear to fuel the personality cult, for example, by presenting President Niyazov with translations of the Rukhnama in the languages of their countries of origin. The French construction firm Bouygues has been engaged in the construction of a series of monumental buildings which reinforce the President's personality cult, such as a mausoleum in his native village of Kipchak for the December 2004 reburial of the alleged remains of the President's parents and two brothers.

As Turkmenistan pursues a policy of denying access to independent human rights monitors to the country, Amnesty International has been unable to conduct a fact-finding mission to Turkmenistan to obtain information for this report. None of the UN special mechanisms who have requested to visit the country have so far been able to do so and Professor Emmanuel Decaux, who was the rapporteur on Turkmenistan appointed by the OSCE in 2003, was refused a visa. Amnesty International is still awaiting a reply from the Turkmen authorities to its letter dated 21 December 2004 requesting to visit Turkmenistan. This report is therefore based on information published or made available to the organization by a wide range of sources including Turkmen civil society activists, journalists, exiled opposition politicians, members of religious minorities, relatives of prisoners, governmental sources, and representatives of the diplomatic community.

In violation of their international obligations, the authorities of Turkmenistan have subjected political opponents to several waves of repression since the country became independent in 1991. Many political opponents have been forced into exile; many have faced house arrest, arbitrary detention, imprisonment following unfair trials, and torture and ill-treatment by police and officers of the Ministry of National Security. Several of those that were later released had to publicly repent on television, promising not to engage in political activities and in many cases had to swear an oath of loyalty to the President. Reportedly, many of those who remain in the country are under close surveillance. In many cases the family members of dissidents have been targeted as well including through harassment, arbitrary detention and dismissal from their workplaces. Thousands of dissidents and their relatives are included in a "black list" of people banned from leaving the country.

In December 2002 and January 2003 at least 59 people were convicted in unfair trials to sentences ranging between five years' imprisonment and life imprisonment for their alleged involvement in what the authorities described as an assassination attempt on the President in November 2002; three of them were sentenced in absentia.(27) Amnesty International received credible reports that many of the defendants were tortured and ill-treated in pre-trial detention.(28) No investigation has been opened into these allegations and it is believed that no one has been brought to justice for these alleged human rights violations.

All these prisoners continue to be held incommunicado, without access to families, lawyers, or independent bodies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. According to unconfirmed reports, the large majority of them are held in the new maximum-security Ovadan Depe prison near Ashgabat while those sentenced to life imprisonment and possibly also those sentenced to particularly long prison terms continue to be kept in cells at the Ministry of National Security in Ashgabat. In April 2004 the Foreign Ministry of Turkmenistan informed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that no access would be granted to any of these prisoners for five years.

The lack of access heightens Amnesty International's concern that the prisoners continue to be at risk of torture and ill-treatment. There are strong indications that at least two prisoners -- Tagandurdy Khalliev and Amanmukhammet Yklymov -- died in custody in 2003 as a result of torture, ill-treatment and harsh prison conditions. There have been allegations of further deaths. However, in the absence of any reaction by the government to any allegations of deaths in custody it has been impossible to verify such reports.

The Turkmen authorities have heavily clamped down on media freedom. All domestic media is state-controlled and the authorities have taken a series of measures aimed at preventing access to alternative sources of information. For example, subscriptions to Russian language newspapers were banned in 2002. In July 2004 Turkmenistan took the Russian radio station Mayak (Beacon) off the air in a move that was evidently aimed at further limiting access of people in Turkmenistan to information that is not controlled by the Turkmen authorities. All internet service is provided by the state monopoly, Turkmentelekom, since the last independent service provider, Ariana, was closed down in 2001. The authorities routinely block websites that publicize "unwanted" information, and have been known to pay intimidating house calls on individuals whom they identified as visiting such sites. Even government-run internet access is prohibitively expensive and the state stopped opening new email accounts in 2004. The few internet cafes that existed in Ashgabat were closed down in 2002. The US Government sponsors open internet access at so-called "American Corners" in four Turkmen cities, but their use is believed to be closely monitored.

The international community should:

Act on the strong recommendations by the reports of the UN High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, the report of the United Nations Secretary-General to the Millennium Summit in September 2005, and the statement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in March 2005, to take effective action to protect human rights, e.g. by establishing an effective mechanism for encouraging and monitoring implementation of the recommendations for protection of human rights in Turkmenistan and to report back to both the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations General Assembly.
Ensure that Turkmen nationals who have been recognized as refugees under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or by national authorities in countries of asylum are given effective and durable protection, including resettlement as an instrument of protection and a durable solution in cases where s/he is at risk of being targeted by Turkmen Secret Service agents in the countries of asylum.
Ensure that asylum claims of Turkmen nationals are carefully considered in fair and satisfactory procedures in accordance with international refugee law and standards in order to ensure that nobody is returned to a situation where s/he would face serious human rights abuses.
Ensure that procedures include a careful examination of circumstances which might give rise to a "sur place" refugee claim as a result of real and imputed actions in the country of residence.

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