TIHR, IPHR, HRW Key Issues and Recommendations
Turkmenistan’s government has not implemented key recommendations it received during the 2013 UPR, and the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly; freedom from torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances; freedom of movement; and adequate compensation for forced evictions continue to be seriously and systematically violated in the country.
Freedom of expression and the media
Turkmenistan’s Media Law prohibits censorship and guarantees media independence, but in practice, there are no media freedoms. The authorities tightly control all national media outlets, use them for propaganda, and suppress information about problematic developments in the country. They restrict access to foreign sources of information, including by dismantling private satellite dishes used to access foreign TV and radio stations under the pretext that they spoil the appearance of residential buildings. While internet use has increased in the last few years, access remains restricted, speed slow and prices high compared to global standards. Authorities have arbitrarily blocked foreign news and NGO sites, as well as social media and communications apps.
The current serious economic crisis, as well as the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games hosted by Turkmenistan in September 2017 have prompted further government restrictions on freedom of expression. In particular, local correspondents of foreign media, civil society activists, and other government critics have faced growing pressure. They have been subjected to surveillance, arbitrary restrictions on their communication and movement, intimidation, attacks by unknown perpetrators committed with impunity, detention and imprisonment on politically motivated grounds. Many of those targeted are women. Family members of activists, including exiled ones have also been singled out for harassment. Our joint submission includes key cases of concern, including those of human rights activist Nataliya Shabunts, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) correspondents Soltan Achilova, Khudayberdy Allashov, and Saparmamed Nepeskuliev. New and additional cases include:
In October 2017, unknown perpetrators threw stones and bricks at the windows of the apartment of Khalida Izbastinova in the city of Dashoguz. This appeared to be an attempt to put pressure on her son, TIHR Director Farid Tuhbatullin, who is based in exile in Austria.
In December 2017, animal rights defender Galina Kucherenko and her daughter were arbitrarily detained in their Ashgabat apartment. The activist was sentenced to 15 days’ detention based on an alleged complaint from neighbours about the nuisance of cats and dogs accommodated by her. Her daughter Valeria was fined for allegedly resisting police.
Galina Vertyakova, who has criticized government policies on social media, was convicted on charges of allegedly extorting a house management official in October 2016 and held for two months before being released. Later she has been subjected to intimidation by national security services.
Turkmenistan’s government should:
— enforce, in practice, the provisions of the Media Law that safeguard media pluralism and prohibit censorship, and allow media to operate without government interference; — end the practice of forcibly dismantling satellite dishes, promote unobstructed internet access and ensure that residents have unimpeded access to foreign sources of information; > — stop persecuting independent journalists, civil society activists and other critical voices, including those who live in exile and their family members in Turkmenistan; — promptly, impartially and thoroughly investigate all allegations of harassment and abuse of government critics and their relatives and hold the perpetrators accountable.
Freedom of association and assembly, and visits by UN Special Rapporteurs
According to the Law on Public Associations, NGOs are required to obtain mandatory state registration in order to operate lawfully, while registration rules are strict. The authorities also enjoy wide powers to oversee the activities and finances of NGOs. According to official information, only slightly more than 100 NGOs are registered in the country of five million residents. These include various government-supported and controlled organizations, such as sports and cultural associations and Soviet-era youth, women’s and veteran unions. Independent human rights organizations cannot operate openly and the few Turkmenistani human rights NGOs that are based in exile (such as TIHR) have been subjected to pressure.
Turkmenistan’s first-ever Law on Assemblies, which entered into force in 2015, allows residents to hold peaceful assemblies if local authorities are informed in advance but also provides for far-ranging restrictions on where assemblies can be held. Public assemblies are rare due to the hostile climate for open debate and the threat of reprisals, and the authorities typically seek to cut short rare spontaneous expressions of protest. In a practice at odds with freedom of assembly, the authorities forcibly mobilize state employees, students and other residents for various regime-praising events. For example, thousands of Ashgabat residents were forcibly mobilized in connection with the Asian Games held in the capital in September 2017. The practice of forced mass mobilization leads to participants missing classes and work and jeopardizes their health since rehearsals are often intense, lengthy and held in all weather conditions.
In the National Human Rights Action Plan for 2016-2020, the government committed to new visits by UN Special Procedures. Currently over a dozen requests for visits by Special Procedures are pending, some of them for more than a decade, and the Special Rapporteur on the right to religion or belief is the only mandate holder ever to have visited the country to date — in 2008. A visit by the Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights has been postponed to 2019. The government should draw up a plan and schedule for visits by other Special Procedures who have requested to visit the country.
Turkmenistan’s government should:
— abolish the requirement of compulsory state registration for NGOs to operate lawfully and ensure that NGOs can be established, obtain legal status and carry out their activities without excessive government restrictions; — abolish undue restrictions on peaceful assembly and end the practice of forcibly mobilizing residents for participation in government-organized mass events; — promptly draw up a plan and schedule for visits by all UN Special Procedures who have requested to visit the country and take constructive and effective measure to facilitate such visits and implement the recommendations resulting from them.
Freedom from torture, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearances
A provision incorporated into Turkmenistan’s Criminal Code in 2012 criminalizes torture but has yet to be invoked in practice. According to the government, it received no complaints about torture and ill-treatment since the new provision entered into force, and there have been no investigations under it. At the same time, credible allegations of widespread use of torture and ill-treatment persist. Individuals convicted on politically motivated grounds or in politically charged cases are reportedly singled out for particularly abusive treatment in detention, including in the high-security Ovadan Depe prison north of Ashgabat.
Following the failed July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, Turkmenistan’s authorities reportedly arrested dozens of purported followers of the Hizmet movement, who were allegedly arbitrarily detained, subjected to torture and ill-treatment and handed lengthy prison terms in closed, unfair trials. A November 2017 opinion issued by the by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found the detention and imprisonment of 18 alleged Hizmet members, convicted in February 2017, to be arbitrary and said “the appropriate remedy would be to release the 18 individuals immediately” and to ensure they have “an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations”. Dozens of individuals imprisoned after earlier trials shrouded in secrecy remain forcibly disappeared. The authorities deny these prisoners contact with their families, who have not received any information about their fate or whereabouts for years and do not know whether they are dead or alive. Some of the disappeared have died in prison.
A prison reform program has resulted in improved conditions for some categories of detainees. However, conditions in other detention facilities remain dire, with overcrowding, undernourishment, widespread tuberculosis, and lack of access to adequate medical care. There is no independent monitoring of places of detention. The government has not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) or set up an independent national preventive mechanism under it. The new office of the Ombudsman, established in late 2016, has a mandate to conduct unannounced visits to places of detention, but there are no institutional safeguards for its independence. The authorities have refused to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to conduct prison monitoring in accordance with its basic terms of reference, although they have organized a few visits for its delegates to selected facilities. The ICRC is no longer negotiating with Turkmenistan’s government on prison access.
Turkmenistan’s government should:
— apply the Criminal Code provision on torture in practice; promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate any allegations of torture and ill-treatment; and prosecute the perpetrators; — end the practices of arbitrary and incommunicado detention and enforced disappearances; release those held on politically motivated grounds and provide information about the fate and whereabouts of all those who have disappeared in prison; — ratify the OPCAT and establish an independent national system for effective and regular monitoring of all places of detention; — grant the ICRC unhindered access to detention facilities and allow it to carry out monitoring in accordance with its standard procedures; — bring the conditions in all detention and prison facilities into line with international standards.
Freedom of movement
The Soviet-era propiska system remains in force. Although the Law on Migration states that the enjoyment of rights and freedoms is not dependent on residence registration, in practice authorities require people to have residence registration in order to access employment, housing and social and health care services. At the same time, it is difficult to obtain such registration, especially in the capital and other large cities. Residents lacking registration have been subjected to police raids, detentions and expulsions. International human rights bodies, including the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have criticized the system of residence registration and its implications with respect to the enjoyment of rights by citizens.
Turkmenistan’s authorities continue to arbitrarily blacklist and restrict the right of residents to exit/enter Turkmenistan, including individuals who are considered “disloyal” to the regime such as former government officials who have fallen out of favour, civil society activists, journalists and religious leaders, as well as their family members. The Migration Law also sets out broad grounds for restricting residents’ travel abroad, such as for security reasons. Unofficial blacklists featuring hundreds of people are still believed to be in use.
Turkmenistan’s government should:
— ensure that residence registration requirements are not used to limit the right to freedom of movement, social and economic rights or other fundamental rights of residents; — end the use of so-called blacklists prohibiting targeted individuals from entering or leaving the country and abolish the broad grounds for restricting travel abroad under the Migration Law.
The right to adequate compensation in connection with evictions
The rights of citizens are violated in connection with the expropriation and demolition of homes in connection with government construction and development projects.
In a recent report, TIHR and HRW documented the government’s failure to provide adequate compensation to residents whose homes it expropriated and demolished to make way for large-scale urban reconstruction, infrastructure, and beautification projects in the years leading up to the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Art Games. Turkmenistan’s law entitles expropriated homeowners to either an alternative “equivalent” living space or financial compensation. However, alternative housing offered was often worth significantly less than the homeowners’ property, or in poor condition, or victims of expropriation were forced to accept alternative housing that was larger than their property, and to pay the difference in assessed value. In some cases, authorities evicted homeowners before alternative housing was available. Residents who tried to contest the expropriation of their homes or seek better compensation were denied justice, harassed and threatened.
Turkmenistan’s government should:
— ensure that residents who have been forcibly evicted get fair and adequate compensation for the loss of their property and costs incurred due to the forced evictions.
Chronicles of Turkmenistan