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Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights


Report by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF).

Report by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF)


The Making of a Failed State Report by the

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF)

April 2004

he International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) is a non-governmental organization that seeks to promote compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act and its follow-up documents. In addition to supporting and providing liaison among 42 Helsinki committees and cooperating organizations, the IHF has direct links with human rights activists in countries where no Helsinki committees exist. It has consultative status with the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

The IHF represents member and cooperating committees in Albania, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Uzbekistan. Other cooperating organizations include the European Roma Rights Centre (Budapest) and Human Rights without Frontiers (Belgium).

President: Ludmilla Alexeyeva

Vice President: Ulrich Fischer

Executive Director: Aaron Rhodes

Deputy Executive Director/Legal Counsel: Brigitte Dufour

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights

Wickenburggasse 14/7, A-1080 Vienna, Austria

Tel: (+43-1) 408 88 22 Fax: (+43-1) 408 88 22-50

Email: office@ihf-hr.org

Internet: www.ihf-hr.org

Bank account: Bank Austria Creditanstalt, 0221-00283/00 BLZ 12 000

ã2004 by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and IHF Research Foundation. All rights reserved.



Introduction 4

Elections 7

Constitutional Amendments 8

Freedom of Expression 9

Freedom of Association 10

Freedom of the Media 11

Fair Trial and Detainees’ Rights 12

Torture, Ill-Treatment and Police Misconduct 14

Conditions in Prisons and Detention Facilities 15

Freedom of Religion 16

National and Ethnic Minorities 18

Freedom of Movement 19

Right to education 20

Women’s Rights 21

Reaction by the International Community 22


Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the declaration of independence of Turkmenistan, the former head of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov was elected to the newly introduced presidential post in the 1992 presidential elections. The participation of the opposition was prevented by announcing the start of the election campaign only one month before the voting date. Following the adoption of a new constitution, Niyazov was re-elected for a five-year presidential term, allegedly with 99.5% of the vote. In 1994, President Niyazov carried out a fraudulent referendum, which allowed him to prolong his term until 2002 without elections—now with 99.9% of the vote, as was officially stated. Despite democratic provisions in the new Turkmen constitution, the parliament of Turkmenistan in 1999 unanimously made Niyazov president for life by abolishing the necessity of any presidential elections and so setting a dangerous precedence for the whole region. In February 2001, President Niyazov stated that the next presidential elections would take place in 2010, but he personally would no longer run as candidate.[1]

However, a year later he proclaimed that the presidential elections might be held in 2007-2008 and that “those who decide to run must start preparing themselves for the role of the nation’s leader right now."[2] Local monitors note that it is no longer necessary for President Niyazov to run for presidency as the August 2003 constitutional amendments (see below), which concentrated power in the People’s Council (Halk Maslahaty), also secured him a central position in Turkmen political life in the future.

Although the state power in Turkmenistan is officially divided into three branches, legislative power is fully subordinated to the executive. Everyday affairs are run by the Cabinet of Ministers, which is appointed and chaired by President Niyazov. The appointments of judges and the post of prosecutor general must also be approved of by the president.[3]

Any political opposition has been excluded from all political processes. The so-called parliament is dominated by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which in 1991 inherited the ruling status and property of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan. Niyazov was confirmed in his position as the chairman of the party.[4] The National Assembly (Milli Majlis), consists of 50 representatives, who are elected in their constituencies on a single-mandate basis. The second body of the legislative power, the People’s Council is comprised of the president, members of parliament, the chairman of the Supreme Court, the prosecutor general, government members, representatives of various levels of regional and local administration, heads of parties and public organizations, as well as members of the Elder’s Congress. According to the constitutional amendments adopted in August 2003, the People’s Council became the highest authority in the country factually abolishing the nominal division of powers in legislative, executive and judicative branches.[5]

During the 1994 parliamentary elections, only Niyazov’s Democratic Party of Turkmenistan was allowed to register candidates. According to government information, the voter turnout was 98.9%.[6] The 1999 parliamentary elections were similarly flawed: Niyazov nominated 100 candidates, who claimed to be independent, but were in fact linked to his party, and among them chose the winners for 50 seats.[7]

Officially, the regime of the President Niyazov tries to promote a democratic image. After gaining independence, Turkmenistan acceded to the main international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which provide for rule of law and democratic institutions and practices. However, Turkmenistan has failed to submit a single report to the UN bodies monitoring the implementation of these instruments.

The 1999 Civil Code is based on principles such as “equality of persons, the inviolability of private property, inviolability from arbitrary interference in private life, the fulfillment of civil rights, and remedies in case of human rights violations.”[8] The only positive measure taken by the Turkmen president to demonstrate the promotion of human rights has been the abolishment of the death penalty at the end of 1999.

President Niyazov is considered a party functionary of the old Soviet school. Since Turkmenistan’s independence, he has created a powerful personality cult, which has reached grotesque proportions. In 1993 the National Assembly granted him the title “Head of all Turkmen,” or Turkmenbashi. President Niyazov was also the first CIS president to go on pilgrimage to Mecca and to "reinvent himself as a devout Muslim.” He is the founder and president of the Humanitarian Association of Turkmen of the World.[9] The admirers of the president even proposed to declare him a prophet, whose rule is based on the “new national spiritual and moral code,” the 400-page “Book of the Soul,” or Rukhnama. The book was allegedly written by Niyazov himself and he declared it to be as important as the Bible and the Koran.[10] Turkmen citizens are required to learn it and swear allegiance to it. In addition, Niyazov has banned opera, ballet, and circus from his country because they are “alien” to the Turkmen culture.[11] By law, insult of the president is punished with the minimum prison sentence of five years.[12]

However, there has also recently been increasing opposition to the presidential rule within the power structures themselves. In early 2002, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Head of the Central Bank, Khudaiberdy Orazov, officially accused the president of concealing the devastating economic problems of both the population and the state by falsifying data.[13] After a number of high-level officials had declared their opposition to Niyazov and gone into exile, President Niyazov started a campaign “against corruption among the elite.” Presenting himself as defender of the rule of law and as persecutor of corruption, in January 2002 he arrested on fabricated charges 200 people who worked as managers, civil servants and for state enterprises.[14]

In addition, as a result of officially declared investigations into crimes and human rights violations committed by agents of the Ministry for National Security (formerly the National Security Committee, KNB, the successor of the KGB), more than sixty officials of that ministry were forced to resign and twenty two were prosecuted in May 2002.[15] These measures gave the regime an air of vulnerability[16] and provoked opposition within the Ministry for National Security, an agency that Niyazov himself had beefed up by increasing its number to 2,500 members and given it almost unlimited power to spy on ordinary people and extract confessions by any means possible.[17] The security services, together with the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, are controlled by the Supreme Defense Committee headed by the president.[18]

The police force and the Ministry for National Security serve as the authorities’ tools to curtail the rights of individuals and their political and civil liberties. The activists of the political opposition have been subjected to arbitrary arrests, prolonged pre-trial detention, and unfair trials. The co-chair of the banned opposition political party Agzybirlik (Unity) Nurberdi Nurmamedov, who openly criticized President Niyazov, was sentenced to five year’s imprisonment on fabricated charges of "hooliganism" in February 2000. Facing the danger that his son would be imprisoned too, he was forced to confess his guilt publicly on television and to swear an oath of loyalty to President Niyazov. Ministry for National Security officials pressured Nurmamedov’s family to state publicly that his case was "a purely criminal matter." The representatives of foreign embassies and of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were refused access to the court, although they had previously received an invitation to send their trial observers.[19] A series of further similar cases has followed in recent years.

Agzybirlik was one of the first opposition groups created by the members of the Turkmen cultural elite who advocated democratic reforms, cultural revival, and the restoration of the Turkmen language. Another group, Paikhas, was founded by members of the Academy of Sciences and endeavoured to promote liberal ideas and to initiate public political discussion. However, notwithstanding opposition protests in 1991to 1993 against the entrenching overt tyranny of Niyazov’s regime, the grassroots support for these movements was limited. By 1993, the Ministry for National Security had stifled almost all traces of domestic opposition, and Niyazov’s personality cult had begun to take root. Moscow had emerged as an unofficial capital of Turkmenistan’s opposition, at the very beginning led by the activist Avdi Kuliev. Kuliev set out for the development of a multiparty system.[20]

The opposition began to reassert itself in November 2001, following the defection of one of the members of Niyazov’s nomenklatura, Boris Shikhmuradov, which was a serious blow to Niyazov’s image as an absolute ruler. Rather than aligning himself with Kuliev, Shikhmuradov had established his own opposition group, the People’s Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan.[21]

The political repression reached its momentum in the aftermath of the alleged assassination attempt on President Niyazov’s motorcade on 25 November 2002, which the president escaped unharmed. However, there have been speculations that Niyazov himself orchestrated the attack in order to justify new repressive measures on his political opponents which he launched immediately following the incident and which resulted in a new wave of massive human rights violations.

The Niyazov regime has shown a significant reluctance to promote the development of economic liberties and to implement market reforms.[22] The country has extensive gas and oil resources and therefore great potential to develop economic welfare. Its gas reserves are the fifth largest in the world, making up 80% of the country’s estimated territorial potential. Niyazov has endorsed projects aimed at intensifying the exploitation and production of gas. The completion of the construction of a gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and Iran (the Karpedzhe-Kord-Kuy) in 2000 also reduced competition and ensured economic benefits.[23] In order to expand the export routes and to benefit fully from resources by switching from the gas transportation through the Russian pipelines controlled by energy behemoths such as Gazprom and Itera, Turkmenistan is advocating the construction of a gas pipeline via Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, profits from the country’s extensive energy exports rarely reach Turkmenistan’s population, which lives in extreme poverty.

According to the World Bank, absolute poverty —i.e. the percentage of people who live on less than €1.80per day—is only 7% in Turkmenistan. However, about the half of the population lives on less than the minimum wage. Basic goods, including water, energy, and bread, are rationed. As a response to the country’s near complete lack of political and economic liberalization, western development banks have largely stopped lending to Turkmenistan. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has described Turkmenistan as “the least advanced in terms of economic reforms of the 27 post-Communist countries” in which it operates. The bank says that little has been fulfilled from previous initiatives of Turkmenistan: to issue a new tax code; to make the use of state funds more accountable and transparent; to implement an improved public procurement law; to reform energy and agriculture; and to improve rural water supply and sanitation. According to some estimates, nearly 90% of workers are employed by the state. This makes it easy for the government to keep tabs on most ordinary citizens and, since there are relatively few private employers, to link the livelihoods of officials and ordinary people to loyalty to the regime. [24]

Elections Independent Turkmenistan has a history of flawed elections and referenda, which have fallen short of all international standards for free and fair elections. The 6 April 2003 elections for both municipal executive committees and the country’s highest representative organ, the People’s Council, followed the same model. President Niyazov declared the elections two years ahead of schedule, a move that he was suspected to have taken in order to eradicate any oppositional sentiments among the parliamentarians and members of government through a reallocation of positions and posts.[25] The elections for local governments and to the People’s Council can also be seen as a part of President Niyazov’s attempt to boost his democratic image by officially proclaiming regular democratic elections, starting at the local level and culminating in the presidential elections in 2010.[26]

While Turkmenistan’s Central Election Commission reported elections of “high standard”,[27] the OSCE centre in Ashgabat said that the 6 April elections violated all principles of western democracy.[28] Most Turkmen knew nothing about the elections. They were officially announced in just over 30 words in the state-owned Turkmen daily Neitralnyi Turkmenistan in January 2003, but after that very little information was available about them. There was no election campaign, and the state media failed to inform the citizens about the candidates. Alternative parties and individual candidates, apart from the country’s only one officially registered party, Niyazov’s Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, were excluded from political balloting. [29]

The majority of the People’s Council’s seats[30] were distributed among state officials of different power echelons. Only 65 deputies could be elected by the Turkmen citizens. 140 contenders competed for these 65 seats, among them 18 women. All candidates were nominated by the presidential administration. In the local elections, 5,535 deputies were elected out of 6,323 candidates, again nominated by the presidential administration and the Ministry for National Security. Their Turkmen nationality, loyalty to the president, a commendable service record, and the absence of convicted ancestors were closely scrutinized. Many candidates were selected among the members of the Ministry for National Security to fill power positions at all levels, a practice which makes independent decision making impossible for deputies.[31]

According to the Central Election Commission, 99.8% of eligible voters took part in the balloting[32] but the real figure is believed to be considerably lower. In order to raise the voter turnout, members of election commissions took ballot boxes right to people’s homes and persuaded people to vote.[33] Fearing the consequences if they refused, people cast their ballot for names on the list of candidates without knowing who actually stood behind them.

Constitutional Amendments The repressive state machinery created by President Niyazov demolished all attributes of a democratic state. The August 2003 amendments to the Turkmen Constitution were the latest step to erode those democratic principles, which had been constitutionally adopted after Turkmenistan had gained its independence.[34] According to these new amendments which were introduced without public debate, the 50-member parliament, the National Assembly, completely lost its status as the country’s supreme permanent authority, (even though previously it was already merely a rubber-stamping body for all presidential decisions). With the August constitutional changes, all branches of power—the executive, the legislative and the judicative—were subordinated to the People’s Council, the body that in 1999 had adopted the decision to make Niyazov president for life and the body chaired by him. Most members of the council were not democratically elected, but appointed according to their political stance, religion, ethnic group, and clan.[35]

Traditionally, the People’s Council usually met annually to confirm the decisions of parliament, which were initiated by the president.[36] In the future, the People’s Council will, among other decisions, approve the “constitution, constitutional laws and amendments,” “make decisions on referendums,” and “declare persons found guilty of high treason and permit them to be sentenced for life.”[37] After a presidential decision, branches of the People’s Council should also be created at the local level. Besides the Ministry for National Security, it should form an additional security layer to control the population.[38] The IHF expressed fear that further repressive measures could be formally justified on the basis of the amended constitution.[39]

Freedom of Expression Repression of Members of the Political Opposition

Following the November 2002 alleged assassination attempt on President Niyazov—which was officially qualified as “an attempted coup aimed at seizing power and overthrowing the constitutional order”—a new wave of repressive measures against political opponents was launched. It was estimated that 200 to 700 individuals were immediately taken into detention on suspicion of participation in the alleged plot.[40] Eight “conspirators” were sentenced to life imprisonment —three of them in absentia—and 51 received sentences ranging from five to twenty-five years imprisonment (six from them less than 10 years).[41] Verdicts of 20-25 years imprisonment —with the maximum sentence being 25 years—usually means that a prisoner has to serve three to five years in a prison and the rest in a strict regime colony.[42] However, on 16 January 2003 the National Assembly passed a decision to permit the Supreme Court to hand down life sentences to people found guilty of involvement in the alleged failed assassination plot with no possibility of amnesty or change of prison.[43] The decision was confirmed in the August constitutional amendments.[44]

It was difficult to estimate the real number of all individuals arrested in relation to the alleged assassination attempt as the relatives of the arrested and their lawyers have been scared to talk, fearing that they might worsen the situation. However, for example, over 100 members of opposition leader Saparmurat Yklymov’s family were arrested. [45]

Government critics living in exile in Russia were also accused of participating in the assassination attempt.

On 29 December 2002, the Supreme Court sentenced in absentia Khudayberdy Orazov, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Director of the Central Bank of Turkmenistan and Nurmukhammet Khanamov, former Turkmen ambassador to Turkey to 25 years imprisonment which was later increased to life imprisonment. The new treason law, which was initiated following the alleged assassination attempt and came into force in March 2003, was a further step to crush dissent. Under this law, a Turkmen citizen will be classified as a traitor for “encroachments on the life and health of the president” and “attempting to sow doubt among people about the internal and foreign policies conducted by the first and permanent president of Turkmenistan, the Great Saparmurat” as well as “encouraging opposition to the state.” The law is so vaguely worded that almost any person could be labeled a traitor and jailed for life. In addition, anyone, who has knowledge of a person intending to commit a crime and does not immediately inform the authorities about it, could also be considered a traitor. The law dictates that pardons, amnesties, parole or reduction of sentence will not apply to those sentenced under the treason law.[46]

Freedom of Association Only a small number of independent NGOs operate in semi-secrecy in Turkmenistan. They are under constant risk of harassment from the security services and live in the permanent danger imprisonment.

The next step to eradicate any dissent in the wake of the alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov was a crackdown on the NGO sector with the arrests of civil society activists.[47]

The arrest of Farid Tukhbatullin, civil society activist and co-chair of the Ecological Club (DEC), in his home town Dashoguz on 23 December 2002, was one of the first in the wake of the November 25 assassination attempt.[48] In November, Tukhbatullin had participated in a conference in Moscow organized by the IHF and Memorial Human Rights Centre. He was charged with illegally crossing the Turkmen-Uzbek border and concealing information about plans of exiled opposition groups to carry out an armed coup, something that Turkmen officials falsely claimed was discussed at the conference. Tukhbatullin was sentenced in a four-hour trial on 4 March 2003 to a three-year jail term. No observers were allowed to attend the trial. OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, personally appealed to Niyazov for the ecologist’s release. He was released after authorities had forced him to sign a letter of “recognition of his guilt and deep repentance.” [49] In the fall of 2003, a new repressive government campaign was started against both registered civil organizations and initiative groups that had not been officially registered. On 21 October, a new law on public associations was adopted, making the registering procedure of both civil and religious organizations as well as their day-to-day operation much more difficult. Registration made it possible for the government to interfere in the affairs of NGOs and to virtually control them. Non-Turkmen citizens are no longer allowed to found public organizations or to become members. According to the law, an NGO must have 50 to 500 members to register. The authorities can also close down a NGO after two warnings for minor reasons such as failure to submit specific data to authorities for registration, but the government is not obliged to specify what kind of violation has taken place. If a NGO wishes to sign an agreement with foreign colleagues, it must obtain permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.[50]

The new regulations vest the authorities with the right to exercise total control over the funding, activities and property of NGOs. Especially affected are NGOs established under previous legislation: their property is now subject to confiscation, and repeated violation of the law can be punished with up to two years imprisonment. The law also prohibits “interference” by NGOs in government politics, a wording that is open to wide interpretation and forbids all criticism and investigative reporting.[51]

On 24 November 2003, a court closed down the Dashoguzskiy Ecological Club (DEC) because its statutes allegedly did not comply with the Law on Public Associations. The DEC was the first independent organization to be registered in 1992 but the Ministry for National Security deprived the DEC of its legal status in 2000. Only as a result of intervention by the OSCE was the DEC re-registered in 2001.[52] The crackdown on the organization began after its leading member Farid Tukhbatullin was charged with conspiracy.[53] Since its closure under a court ruling in 2003, DEC has not been able to take up its activity again.[54] A sports group for disabled teenagers in Ashgabat was closed down after the Ministry for National Security threatened its staff members with imprisonment. The founder of the group said that the only way to operate legally would be to give up charitable activities and to begin to work as a profit-making firm. On 18 November, the Turkmen Justice Ministry held a meeting for some 40 representatives of unregistered NGOs and warned them to cease their activities immediately.[55]

As of the end of 2003, Turkmenistan had around 300 registered and unregistered public organizations. As NGOs focusing on the issues of democracy and human rights are not allowed to operate, only NGOs devoted to environmental problems, supporting students and certain minority groups can exist. However, only state organizations such as the Women’s Union, the Youth Association and the Veteran’s Association can operate without obstacles while representatives of other civic organizations have been summoned to the Justice Ministry and demanded to stop their activity. As a result, Turkmen authorities effectively stifle the newly developing independent civil society sector.[56]

Freedom of the Media The Turkmen government has been restricting free and independent reporting by controlling

the mass media and through censorship. For the Turkmen president, the media have but one purpose: to promote his image. The state run Turkmentelecom and other state communication entities control all publishing and broadcast licenses in the country.[57] Institutional news come from a single source, the president’s personal press office.[58]

In May 2000, the Turkmen Ministry of Communications withdrew the licenses of all five private Internet service providers, which were better-run than the state Internet service, and which had local information services, trade representatives and embassies as clients. The only Internet provider in 2003 was state-owned and strictly controlled. [59]

As a member of the OSCE and party to the ICPPR, Turkmenistan is obliged to guarantee freedom of the media and allow journalists to work freely. However, according to the world press freedom report issued by Reporters Without Borders in October 2003, freedom of mass media was virtually non-existent in Turkmenistan: it had the worst press freedom record in Central Asia and joined countries such as Cuba and North Korea among the world’s ten worst ranking countries in terms of media freedoms.[60]

Turkmen security agencies have harassed the Ashgabat correspondent of the Turkmen-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Saparmurat Ovezberdiev, and demanded he stop producing the programs “Vox Pop” and “Open Microphone.” The latter program gives people whose rights have been violated an open arena to speak out and to address human rights organizations abroad. On 11 September 2003, the Ministry for National Security arrested him and held him for three days, drugged and threatened him with 20 years imprisonment as a traitor. On 14 November, Ovezberdiev was forcibly taken to an Ashgabat cemetery and severely beaten by security agents who told him: “ We’ve had enough of you, we are going to get rid of you.” Ovezberiev sustained injuries as a result of the incident.[61] The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Freimut Duve emphasized in a 16 May 2002 report that the Turkmen government’s absolute monopoly on the media, was “unprecedented since the founding of the OSCE.” In January 2003, Duve also condemned the misuse of mass media for humiliating victims of Niyazov’s regime and the alleged organizers of the assassination attempt. Referring to live TV broadcasts of the accused making confessions and being denounced by members of the public who demanded the death penalty, Duve equated them to methods used during the Stalinist era in the 1930s. “The rhetoric used is often obscene, and in most countries would be unprintable,” Duve stated.[62]

Fair Trial and Detainees’ Rights The arrest, investigation and trial of those suspected of participation in the alleged assassination attempt of the president was accompanied by serious violations of almost all international due process standards: individuals were arrested arbitrarily with no access to legal counsel of their own choice family members or medical doctor; presumption of innocence was violated; investigations were carried out under pressure from the executive and the presidential administration; suspects were tortured and ill-treated and they neither had access to their case file nor were given the right to an open trial.

The fact that the work of law enforcement agencies was evaluated not according to the quality of crime investigation but according to the detection rate and convictions, meant that most convictions were based on confessions, not on qualitative investigation. In many cases television shows were organized presenting the suspects publicly “confessing” their guilt. These shows of “repentance” were obtained by means of torture, humiliation and ill-treatment. Before trial, the property of the defendants was often confiscated and their families were forced out of their houses. Also, before trials had even started, President Niyazov proclaimed on national television which sentences would be handed down. Detainees were denied access to a legal counsel of their own choice and the lawyers, who were appointed ex officio, started the meetings with their defendants and even trials with the words: “I am ashamed to defend a person like you, but my profession obliges me to do so.”[63]

The defendants were refused any information on their case and details of the verdict, but under threat of violence were forced to sign a document stating that they had been informed of all the details on the case against them. After the verdict had been pronounced, they were denied the right to appeal. The trials, which lasted no longer than a few days, were held behind closed doors. The defendants’ relatives and international observers were not allowed to attend court hearings and the authorities failed to publish comprehensive information about the trials, including the names of the defendants, charges brought against them and where the trials were held.[64]

One of the leading opposition figures in exile, Boris Shikhmuradov, who was accused of orchestrating the assassination attempt, surrendered himself to the Ministry for National Security. On the website of his opposition movement Gundogar he announced that he did this to hinder the torture of innocent people who had been arrested to extract information about his whereabouts.[65] Shikhmuradov had called the alleged failed assassination plot a spectacle, which “Turkmenbashi” needed in order to eliminate all opposition. During the judicial inquiry, Shikhmuradov was subjected to torture, and in a show trial on the national television he publicly repented to having organized the assassination attempt and called on his collaborators to follow suit. He called the opposition a host of drug dealers: “There is no single decent person among us. We are all thugs, and I am a criminal who is only able to destroy a state.”[66] During the interrogation, he also reportedly admitted to having stolen military aircrafts, weapons, ammunition and other materials worth more than €25 million, which he should pay back to the state.[67] There were reports that Shikhmuradov received the official indictment only in the Turkmen language, which he does not speak.[68] Under the new decree passed by the National Assembly on 16 January 2003, Boris Shikhmuradov was convicted to life sentence.[69] After Chudayberdy Orazov, the former director of Turkmenistan’s Central Bank was in January 2003 officially declared one of the main organizers of the alleged assassination attempt, the Ministry for National Security removed from position all officials in his native town Dashogus who had been friendly with him. Similar dismissals were carried out in banks throughout the country. Dozens of people, who used to work under Orazov were arrested, dismissed from their jobs and their freedom of movement was restricted.[70] In a country-wide witch-hunt, the juridical weekly Adalat (“Justice”) on 31 January 2003 published the names of the “enemies of the people” and “betrayers of the motherland.” The “voluntary confessions” of suspects Boris Shikhmuradov, Taganduri Khalliev, Nurmukhammet Orazgeldiev, Yiklim Yiklimov, Guvanch Dzhumaev and Leonid Komarovskiy were accompanied by humiliating and insulting comments by editors.[71] Family members and friends of the accused also faced detention, intimidation, threats, eviction of property as well as severe torture at the hands of law enforcement agencies.[72] The aim was to put pressure on opposition members in exile to return and to extract confessions or evidence from those already in custody.”[73] Often people with no or only occasional contacts to the suspects were targeted.[74] In many cases, all male members of the family of a detainee and those convicted were taken into custody, and detained in an investigation isolator for about a day and ill-treated.

After the assassination attempt, the presidential administration supposedly received 8,900 letters from Turkmen citizens who demanded that those guilty of the act of terror on the Turkmen president should be executed.[75] The IHF expressed fear that such allegations, coupled with an orchestrated campaign by the state-controlled mass media to the same end, could be used as a pretext to reinstate the death penalty in Turkmenistan.[76]

Torture, Ill-Treatment and Police Misconduct[77]

Torture and ill-treatment of detainees is more the rule than an exception. The most commonly used methods include the use of electro-shocks, beating with rubber truncheons, and placing gas masks over the head and cutting the flow of oxygen, leaving many handicapped for life. Torture is used both to extract confessions or information and as an additional punishment after the ”confession” has been signed.

In wake of the repression that followed the 25 November events, many detainees were drugged to obtain “confessions”: they were injected with a substance to make them lose consciousness, after they had come to but were still somnolent, they had to read out pre-written confessions in front of cameras.

Amanmukhamed Yklymov, brother of opposition leader Saparmurat Yklymov, was reportedly sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment on 19 January 2003. Amanmukhamed Yklymov stated during his trial that he was beaten while in custody, a plastic bag was put over his head to restrict his breathing, that he was suspended by his arms, and forced to wear a gas mask, to which the air supply was cut off. As a result of torture, he lost the sight in his left eye and hearing in his left ear. His left arm was broken and he was hardly able to move. The court, however, ignored these allegations.[78] Yklym Yklymov, another brother of Saparmurat Yklymov, and his girlfriend Olga Prokofyeva managed to flee, but Prokofyeva’s mother and sister were reportedly tortured using electric shocks, beaten with rubber truncheons and plastic bottles filled with water to force them to disclose the whereabouts of Yklym Yklymov and his girlfriend Twenty-one-year old student Aili Yklymov and his elder brother Esenaman Yklymov—both relatives of Saparmurat Yklymov—were arrested on the day of the alleged attack on the president. According to credible sources, Aili Yklymov was beaten so severely in the basement of the Ministry for National Security that he was unable to walk and had to be taken in to be questioned on a stretcher. Also Esenaman Yklymov was reportedly ill-treated in custody. He was forced to denounce his parents on television and was reportedly sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Both brothers reportedly received no treatment for their injuries while in custody.[79] Conditions in Prisons and Detention Facilities[80]

It is estimated that Turkmenistan has about 36,000 prisoners; however, there are no official statistics available. Regular amnesties reduce the number temporarily, but the practice of courts of handing down long prison sentences for most crimes rapidly fills the prisons again.

The conditions in a prison of strict regime largely depend on the financial situation of detainees as well as on the reasons for which they are serving a prison sentence. However, generally conditions are very poor, with overcrowding, substandard nutrition and lack of medical care. Most prisoners cannot sleep properly because of the lack of beds and blankets. Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis are widespread.

The strict regime colony in Bayram-Ali, for example, is designed for 600 prisoners but in reality housed about 4,200 people, as a result of which many convicts must sleep outdoors. Inmates cannot wash themselves for months. As a result of the unbearable conditions one to two people die every day during winter and three to four in the summer. A large number of the inmates suffer from tuberculosis.

The conditions in Turkmenistan pre-trial detention places (SIZOs) are very harsh, and are similar to those in prisons. For example, the pre-trial detention center of the Ministry for National Security falls seriously short of all international standards. Two to three square meter cells hold three detainees. They are not permitted to have contacts with their relatives or a lawyer and are deprived of any means of communication: not allowed to write letters, to have radios and daily newspapers, or to speak to inmates in other cells. Only rarely are they taken out to have a walk. Nutrition is seriously substandard, consisting of hot water and a piece of black bread for breakfast and porridge for lunch. Food parcels from relatives are allowed once a month but much of their contents are usually stolen by prison guards. Detainees are allowed to take a shower once a week and given 10 minutes per week to wash their clothes. As a result of lack of movement, they suffer from pain in their joints and nervous breakdowns.

Conditions in the pre-trial detention center of the Ministry of Internal Affairs are similarly appalling. The cells are seriously overcrowded with up to 40 people in a single cell of about nine to seven meters in size. Detainees are obliged to sleep on the floor because there are no beds. Mattresses, pillows, or blankets, not to mention bed-linen, are not available. Extremely poor sanitary conditions increase the risk of tuberculosis.

Freedom of Religion[81]

Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most restrictive countries in terms of freedom of religion.

In the past decade, the government has gradually posed increasing restrictions on religious activities. The 1996 amendments to the law on religion set a threshold of 500 adult Turkmen citizens for each local religious community to be eligible to register. As a result, only the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church were registered. Even religious communities able to meet these stringent requirements—such as some Shia Muslim and Protestant communities—have been denied registration.

On 21 October 2003, a new very restrictive law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” was signed into law and it came into force on 10 November. While the old law did not expressly require registration for all religious groups—despite the fact that in practice authorities allowed only the two registered communities to operate—article 11 of the new law specifically outlaws all unregistered religious activity and a criminal code amendment prescribes penalties for breaking the law of up to one year of “corrective labor.” The requirement of 500 members greatly obstructs registration, although religious minority communities regard this as irrelevant as it would be impossible to attain this status anyway. The Justice Ministry is in charge of registration and it, or a court, can also cancel it. The ministry or courts can liquidate a religious organization on the basis of a wide range of reasons, including “interference in family relations leading to the breakdown of a family” or “violation of social security and social order.”

On the basis of the new law, only teachers approved by the governmental council Gengeshi are allowed to teach religion and the Gengeshi and the Council of Minister are responsible for founding institutions to train clergy and other religious personnel. The law also prohibits all those except “servants of religious organizations” from wearing “cult vestments.” Article 20 requires that the import of all religious literature must be approved by Gengeshi, and article 15 prescribes that all foreign support must be reported to the Justice Ministry.

Authorities routinely break up worship services and other religious meetings of non-registered communities, condemning them as “illegal.” Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other Protestants communities, as well as Shia Muslims, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and Jewish, Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishna communities are de facto banned and their activity punishable under administrative or criminal laws. Religious activity is overseen by the Ministry for National Security department for work with social organizations and religious groups, which recruits spies in religious communities. In 2003, there was a spate of raids on Protestants and Hare Krishnas. Adherents of non-registered communities were threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from their jobs, while homes used for worship and study of religious literature were confiscated. Some believers were given long prison sentences in recent years for their religious activity (all known recent cases being Jehovah’s Witnesses) or have been sent into internal exile to remote parts of the country. In particular young men who refuse to carry out compulsory military service on the grounds of conscience have been targeted.

On 11 March 2003, Baptist leader Anatoli Belyayev, who had been held in prison by the Ministry for National Security since 2 February, was deported from Turkmenistan with his family.[82] On 16 March 2003, the Ministry for National Security officials raided a religious service in an unregistered Baptist church in the city of Balkanabad. The Baptist group was accused of holding an unsanctioned meeting and violating the law on religious cults. The meeting was dispersed and the names of its participants, including their children, their addresses as well as places of work were written down. The officers said that if the group was not officially registered, their meetings would be controlled by the authorities and a police officer would be present at each service.[83] As of December 2003, several Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving prison terms in Turkmenistan on religious grounds.

In May 1999, Kurban Bagdatovich Zakirov was convicted to one year imprisonment on religious grounds. After being pardoned once and having served one prison term in 2000, he was sentenced to a further eight years imprisonment for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to President Niyazov and for allegedly attacking a corrections official.[84] His current sentence at a labor colony in Turkmenbashi has seriously affected his health. Nikolai Viktorovich Shelekhov completed one year in prison in December 2001 for refusing to carry out military service. Six months later, on 2 July 2002, the District Court of Ashkhabad once again sentenced Shelekhov to a year and a half in prison. At least three other Jehovah’s Witnesses were recently imprisoned for conscientious objection.[85] In September, Oguldzhan Dzhumanazarova, a lawyer and a Jehovah’s Witness, was freed from a labor camp. She had served two years and 33 days of her four-year sentence. Prior to her arrest, Dzhumanazarova had legally defended Jehovah’s Witnesses who had faced charges for their religious activities. As a result, the authorities attempted to have her forcibly sent to a psychiatric hospital, which she managed to avoid by leaving her hometown. Later, she was reportedly arrested on fabricated charges of bribery.[86] Restrictions have also been imposed on the practice of Islam, in particular, on private Islamic education. In 2000, President Niyazov stated that only one madrassah sufficed for the whole country and it must operate under the control of Muftiyat. In that year, the Gengeshi took control over selection, promotion and dismissal of all Sunni Muslim mullahs.[87] In January 2003, President Niyazov ousted the Chief Mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, an ethnic Uzbek who had led Turkmenistan’s Muslims for the previous ten years. He was replaced by 35-year-old Kakageldy Vepaev, someone widely believed to be more pliant. Government tolerance of Sunni Islam has not extended to Shia Islam, which is mainly professed by the ethnic Azeri and Iranian minorities in the west of the country who are traditionally more devout than ethnic Turkmens. Shia mosques failed to be re-registered during the compulsory round of re-registration in 1997, following the adoption of the much harsher law.

National and Ethnic Minorities Constitutional rights and freedoms of national minorities such as Russians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Germans are grossly violated. The situation of smaller ethnic minority groups of Turks, Kurds and Beludzhi was even worse. Members of national minorities are not allowed to apply for positions at financial and military structures, in the judicial system, or police and security agencies. Young people applying to study at the Police Academy of General Niyazov or the Military Institute of Defense must be able to provide information about the ethnicity of their ancestors dating back three generations.[88]

Members of ethnic minority groups are discriminated against when requesting exit visas to study abroad, e.g. to participate in academic programs such as the American Councils for International Education (ACTR-ACCELS) in the USA. Officials at the Ministry of Education insist that only children of ethnic Turkmens in several generations are eligible. The ministry selects its own candidates—all ethnic Turkmens and only men—arguing that non-Turkmens cannot be sent abroad because they would not return to Turkmenistan.[89]

On 22 April 2003, the People’s Council repealed the bilateral agreement between Russia and Turkmenistan on dual citizenship. President Niyazov argued that dual citizenship had offered an opportunity for criminals to escape prosecution in Turkmenistan.[90] According to the new regulations, people had to decide between Russian or Turkmen citizenship. Those people who preferred Russian citizenship were ordered to leave for Russia on 22 June 2003 at the latest—giving them only two months time to re-organize their life. Under pressure, many ethnic Russians sold their property for a markedly low price and left the country, or simply left for Russia leaving their property behind after authorities had created various obstacles for selling their property. Some were evicted from their homes. Many others kept their Russian passports but stayed. As of the end of 2003, no one was known to have been officially stripped of property rights or deported, but there were reports of searches by authorities.[91]

In late June, Interfax cited a Russian embassy official in Ashgabat saying that over 2,600 Russian citizens who also had Turkmen citizenship, had obtained entry visas to Russia in June.[92]

The revocation of dual citizenship represented a culmination of the discriminative politics of the last decade. Before that, Russian diplomas were not officially accepted, and the Academy of Science was closed down, the majority of whose members were Russians. In addition, over the past decade some 20,000 Russian teachers and 20,000 Russian medical doctors have allegedly been removed from their jobs.[93]

Freedom of Movement Turkmenistan imposes strict regulations on the activities of foreign citizens within the country. The new State Service for the Registration of Foreigners is expected to advise Turkmen embassies abroad about the applications for visas and which should be approved or denied. Foreigners are also required to pay €8.25 at border posts for the right to enter Turkmenistan.[94] A foreign visitor had to register a place of residence in Turkmenistan within three days of arrival.

In February 2003, Turkmenistan introduced a new rule requiring its own citizens to apply for exit visas. It is not easy for common Turkmen citizens to obtain a passport and an exit visa for foreign travel, though bribing an official may help.[95] Those who are banned entirely from traveling abroad include people facing criminal charges, those who owe debts to the state, people who have had access to state secrets, and those eligible for military draft.[96] Additionally, authorities have compiled a list of 2,500 persons who are forbidden both to leave the country and to freely move within Turkmenistan. [97]

In January 2004, the exit-visa requirement was reportedly lifted. Already before it was officially stated, speaking at a cabinet meeting on 5 January, the president denied that citizens had needed an exit visa to leave the country and called it a “misunderstanding” and a ”rumor.”[98]

Moreover, some territories close to the Uzbek border, such as Dashogus and Lebap as well as the regions around the border with Iran and Afghanistan are declared border zones. These zones cover 40% of the country’s territory and the Turkmen population, respectively. Nobody can enter these areas without special permission issued by the police at the place of permanent residence. For the dwellers of densely populated, economically and socially underdeveloped regions, special restrictions on living in the capital city Ashgabat have been adopted in order to hinder them from looking for work and a better life in the capital. Only paying bribes to controlling police officials may save them from being arrested. All citizens are required to carry internal passports, where their place of residence and any movements into and out of the country are recorded.[99]

ight to Education

The educational system of Turkmenistan has markedly deteriorated and has become overtly politicized over the past few years. The goal of education no longer appears to be the intellectual and critical development of children and university students, but it seems to rather be a means for the government to politically influence individuals.

The education system lacks investment on numerous levels: the educational time has been shortened to nine years; new, up-to-date textbooks are unavailable; the teachers’ wages have been drastically reduced or their payment delayed; and there have been mass layouts of non-Turkmen teachers on various grounds.

In addition, ideological control over teaching materials has become more drastic over the years through the obligatory readings of President Niyazov’s so-called “holy book,” Rukhnama. In 2003, the amount of classroom time dedicated to the learning of the Rukhnama drastically increased, thus negatively affecting the overall quality of education.”[100] Therefore, it is clear that the priority of the Niyazov administration is not to enforce and develop basic education, but rather to enforce propaganda and to prevent children at an educative level from critically analyzing the political regime. The ideological influence can be traced through the entire educational system, starting at the kindergarten level and going through all other levels of the educational institutions.[101] The knowledge of Rukhnama has become an entry requirement for university students and a certification requirement for teachers, doctors, and other professionals.[102]

Adding to this high level of political control within the boundaries of education, President Niyazov introduced other methods in order to increase the level of political propaganda. The month of April was called after Niyazov’s mother, who, as he claimed, gave birth to the “Son of Turkmenistan.” Moreover, On 1 April 2003, the first lesson in all Turkmen schools began with a special lesson dedicated to Kaabe Turkmen— the mother of the president who died during the earthquake in 1948.[103]

President Niyazov has also been supporting child labor by sending children at young ages in the cotton fields. From September until November, many children of all school levels are sent to harvest cotton fields for three months in the fall.[104]

The government has also taken measures to eliminate non-Turkmen education. As of early 2004, only one Russian-language school existed in Turkmenistan and it was under the patronage of the Russian embassy.[105]

In autumn 2003, the Russian school director, Ms. Bayamanova, was arbitrarily dismissed from her job. Bayamanova was then replaced by an ethnic Turkmen.[106] In the regions of Tashaous and Chardjou, where many ethnic Uzbeks received their education in the Uzbek language, 180 teachers reportedly resigned in January and February 2003 as a response to Niyazov’s dictatorial policies and cuts on non-Turkmen teachers.[107] Not only non-Turkmen teachers have been dismissed. The government has also cut the number of teachers as whole. Through a 2000 presidential decree, Niyazov reduced the number of teachers throughout out the country, which consequently destabilized the educational situation even more, leading to overcrowded class rooms and, subsequently, reduced the quality of education. It was reported that during 2000 and 2001, 1,1000 teachers were dismissed, officially reported by state officials due to a surplus of teachers.[108]

Due to the backlog of unpaid wages, cuts in wages and the increasing political influence within the education system, many teachers have left schools.[109] Those teachers who have kept their jobs are in most cases underpaid. This, again, has resulted in the closure of schools and many of those schools left are barely surviving. In addition, the majority of qualified teachers have left the country in search of wages higher than the state’s €20.60-32 per month.[110]

Bribery also plays an important role within the Turkmen educational system. In most cases, bribes between €1,650 and 9,895 depending on the reputation of the school and institution, must be paid for admission.[111]

The government, citing the 35th amendment to the constitution, has stated that schools may function within a private program. Contrary to this, in the early 1990s, the government of Niyazov, going against the amendment of the Turkmen constitution, arbitrarily forbid many schools to launch their own private programs.[112] The limited amount of schools that did receive the permission to work within a private sphere had tuition fees ranging €4.12 –12.40 a month per child, which is an extremely large tuition fee in Turkmenistan since the average income ranges €6.60 - 25 a month.

Additionally, the Turkmen government has also declared, by a decree of 21 February 2003, that all foreign degrees are not recognized in Turkmenistan. The effect of this declaration is that young people, who wish to study abroad, are now forced to study at the politicized Turkmen universities. To legitimately study abroad, a student now needs a special state warrant.[113] Niyazov’s explanation for this decree was: “Why do we have to help these students? They are already not ours, they lost our national spirit, and we do not know with what they’ll return.”[114] As a result of the decree, a number of students had to stop their studies abroad. However, with respect to the decree, at the beginning of 2003, there were still approximately 7,000 Turkmen students studying abroad.

Women’s Rights[115]

One of the most serious human rights problems in Turkmenistan is the profound social discrimination against women and domestic violence. Turkmenistan has brought national legislation formally into conformity with international provisions on women’s rights and freedoms. As state party to the UN Declaration on Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Turkmenistan is obliged not to accept any discriminatory norms against women. The Civil Code of Turkmenistan also protects the rights and interests of women and provides for the right to privacy, secrecy of intimate life, birth, adoption, etc.

Despite these formal guarantees for the protection of women’s rights, a restrictive national culture and traditions impact greatly on their status in society. Breaking these values causes women serious problems within families and often leads to divorce. Married women depend upon their husband’s will and are exposed to domestic violence, which is widely regarded as the traditional model of male behavior. As courts usually call for reconciliation between victims of violence and their abusers, women who wish to file an application for divorce on grounds of domestic violence most often do not succeed.

Turkmen women depend on their husbands both socially and economically, and are largely unaware of their rights. Those living in traditional rural areas have usually had only eight years of education and are unable to leave their husbands due to economic insecurity. The only officially registered women’s rights NGO—which is actually a pro-governmental organization and a relic of the Soviet type of “civic organizations”—is the Turkmenistan Women’s Union, which largely represents traditional, patriarchal ideology.

Reactions by the International Community Turkmenistan’s human rights record permanently violates virtually all commitments Turkmenistan has made in the OSCE and as a party to UN treaties. International institutions have taken a number of measures to put diplomatic pressure on President Niyazov and his regime, however, with little success.

On 20 December 2002, ten participating states of the OSCE invoked the “Moscow Mechanism” in order to investigate and collect information on human rights violations following the 25 November 2002 events in Turkmenistan. However, the Turkmen president showed no willingness to cooperate with Professor Emmanuel Decaux, a well-known French human rights expert whom the OSCE appointed as special rapporteur on Turkmenistan. Professor Decaux was also denied a visa to enter Turkmenistan. In addition, President Nizayov refused to nominate an expert of his own to look into the problems. Nevertheless, Professor Decaux was asked to prepare a report on various human rights problems in Turkmenistan in the aftermath of 25 November, which he did, basing this on information from governmental and non-governmental organizations. The highly critical report was published on 12 March 2003. According to this report, “any new delay in taking action against human rights violations in Turkmenistan would not only be a moral abdication but also a collective complicity.”[116]

After his visit to Turkmenistan in March 2003, the then OSCE Chairman-in-Office Jaap de Hoop Scheffer emphasized the necessity to keep communication between Turkmenistan and the OSCE open. According to him, notwithstanding “different opinions” and “mutual criticism,” President Niyazov “was willing to continue dialogue with the OSCE.”[117]

On 16 April 2003, the 59th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in Turkmenistan in the wake of the investigation into the alleged assassination attempt on 25 November 2002. The resolution, among other things, “deplored” the treatment of accused individuals, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, the absence of the observation of minimum rules of due process, the use of torture or the threat of torture, and closed court proceedings. It also deplored the reluctance of the Turkmen government to cooperate with the OSCE “Moscow Mechanism.” The UN Commission inter alia called upon the government to ensure full respect of all basic human rights; to immediately release all prisoners of conscience and bring to justice those responsible for human rights violations; and to fully cooperate with international organizations on human rights questions.[118]

Towards the end of 2003, Turkmenistan made some concessions, which, however, were treated with caution by representatives of the international community. These concessions included the release of Baptist Geldy Khudaikuliev from imprisonment in December, and lifting the exit-visa requirement in January 2004.[119]

In December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on Turkmenistan by an overwhelming majority of 73 in favor and 42 against, with 56 abstaining.[120] The General Assembly urged the Turkmen government to develop a constructive dialogue with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and to cooperate fully with all the mechanisms of the office. It further urged the government to grant to the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as lawyers and relatives immediate access to detained persons; to implement fully the measures set out in Commission on Human Rights resolution of 16 April 2003; to inform the Commission before its sixtieth session of the steps being taken in this regard; and to implement fully the recommendations outlined in the March 2003 report of the OSCE Rapporteur of the “Moscow Mechanism.”[121]

On 23 October 2003 the European Parliament adopted a resolution concerning the human rights situation in Turkmenistan and Central Asia: Deploring the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, the Parliament called on the government to respect its obligations under international law and implement all the recommendations contained in the UN Human Rights Commission resolution of April 2003

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