The EU should urge Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, to reinstate fundamental civil and political rights, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today. Berdymukhamedov will meet with EU leaders in Brussels on November 5-7. Their agenda is expected to include improving natural gas supplies from Turkmenistan to the EU.
Since last year’s death of Saparmurat Niazov, who ruled Turkmenistan for 21 years and created one of the world’s worst tyrannies, the EU and other international actors have sought to reengage with Turkmenistan.
In the new briefing paper, Human Rights Watch said that while Berdymukhamedov has begun to reverse some of the most ruinous social policies of Niazov’s rule and to end the country’s international isolation, the government remains one of the most repressive and authoritarian in the world.
“The EU should look at the new Turkmen government’s record not only by comparing it to Niazov’s tyrannical rule but by setting a higher bar for progress,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “To do otherwise is to lose a crucial opportunity for change at a time when the government of Turkmenistan is defining its future path.”
Since coming to power, President Berdymukhamedov has reinstated pensions and social allowances, reinstated the 10th year of secondary education, restored the five-year course of university-level education, and held discussions with foreign governments on extensive and important educational exchanges, particularly in higher education.
“The Turkmen government’s social reforms cannot but be an improvement over the disastrous polices of the Niazov era,” said Cartner. “But Turkmenistan’s continued repression of civil society allows no independent institutions to scrutinize developments in these areas. Moreover, we don’t see any commitment to reform in civil and political rights.”
The Human Rights Watch briefing paper calls for the immediate release of Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, Annakurban Amanklychev, and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who were convicted on politically motivated charges during the Niazov era. Human Rights Watch said that hundreds of people, perhaps more, languish in Turkmen prisons after unfair trials on possibly politically motivated charges, and called for the government to establish a nationwide process to ensure a remedy for victims of injustice during the Niazov era and through the present.
The paper also describes the draconian restrictions on freedom of expression and association that remain in place in Turkmenistan. Independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that deal with human rights cannot function properly due to government threats and harassment. While some individuals have been permitted to travel abroad, the system of foreign travel restrictions inherited from the Niazov era remains in place.
“Denial of freedom of expression, association, religion, and movement were egregious and longstanding aspects of Niazov’s tyranny, and we’re just not seeing improvements in most of these areas,” said Cartner. “The EU should stick to its own criteria for engagement and insist on progress before it deepens its relationship with Turkmenistan on specific reforms.”
The European Union has not ratified a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan. The ratification process was stalled in the late 1990s due to Niazov’s disastrous human rights record.
In October 2006, two months before Niazov’s death, the International Trade Committee of the European Parliament voted to stop further consideration of an interim trade agreement with Turkmenistan until its government significantly improved its human rights record.
The committee resolution stated that the European Union will approve an interim trade agreement with Turkmenistan only if “clear, tangible, and sustained progress on the human rights situation is achieved.” It called on the Turkmen government to release all political prisoners, allow the registration and free functioning of nongovernmental organizations, permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to work freely in the country, and to grant United Nations human rights monitors “timely” access to Turkmenistan to monitor the situation.
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