Catherine A. Fitzpatrick Ivar Dale, advisor on Central Asian issues at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, was in New York this week to take part in an aptly-titled panel organized by the Open Society Institute, «Human Rights in Turkmenistan: Bleak and Getting Bleaker». (EurasiaNet is funded by Open Society Foundations through its Central Eurasian Project-ed.)
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) has just released a report (in English and Russian) on the Dashoguz Women’s Prison Colony in Turkmenistan that provides a rare glimpse into a closed society’s even more closed penitentiary system.
The authors of the report cannot be named due to fear of reprisals.
The women’s prison holds more than 2,000 female inmates who are serving their sentences under very harsh conditions which NHC says amount to inhumane treatment and torture. A particularly nasty feature of the Turkmen police state is to arrest the relatives of suspects and torture them for information on their family members -- then lock them up, too. Such «enemies of the people» are kept in a special compound, and include Guzel Atayeva, wife of Ovezgeldy Atayev, the former chairman of the Mejlis, or parliament.
NHC has presented the study to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), which will review Turkmenistan’s first report to the treaty body May 17-18. The Norwegian activists are also hoping that as international companies are now gaining more access to Turkmenistan to develop its considerable hydrocarbon reserves, the international community will press for access of monitors to the prison and the release of those unjustly held.
Dale said he expected CAT would give some serious consideration to the findings - beatings, rapes, freezing punishment cells, cramped, overcrowded living cells, mattresses often without sheets, and meager food rations, consisting of brick-like black bread and balanda, the prison jargon for watery, nearly meatless soup. Bribery is rampant - prisoners or their families pay to get on the amnesty list or get better food or a visit. Dale believes that with his group’s revelations, together with reports from the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and others, the CAT experts should be left with little doubt about just how grim the human rights situation is in Turkmenistan.
The question is what to do about it, how best to formulate recommendations to the government, and what are the real levers for change. With other post-Soviet countries, CAT has insisted on the creation of credible national bodies to investigate allegations of torture, urged greater access to prisons, and suggested reforms ranging from removing window covers to moving beds farther apart to curb tuberculosis. Yet in Turkmenistan’s case, already with the international community’s involvement, there has been a mere semblance of the creation of human rights machinery which may now get in the way of really addressing the problem of torture.
If CAT were to urge the formation of yet another commission or committee, on top of the existing presidentially-controlled bodies that in theory already accept and act on complaints, it will merely contribute to Ashgabat’s bad faith.
«A mere reshuffling of national institutions will not improve the lives of those who are subject to torture. What they need is that a clear order goes out to end these horrible practices and that existing Turkmen law relating to human rights is enforced inside the country,» Dale told EurasiaNet.
There’s been some discussion in Turkmenistan of urging CAT to recommend reforms such as those made by Russia or Uzbekistan, moving the prisons out from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry, under the theory that they will have more judicial scrutiny, or introducing habeas corpus. Yet as Dale notes, «in practice, there is no rule of law in Turkmenistan and so the emphasis must be put elsewhere than on paper reform.»
The reality in Turkmenistan today is that President Berdymukhamedov controls every decision that is made by government organs. The international community must be careful not to be fooled into supporting protracted legal reforms that ultimately do not help the Turkmen people. The authorities should not be allowed to make a mockery of human rights by establishing empty institutions that are only intended to serve as showcases to visiting diplomats.
The key is to make the president - who already has control of every major and many minor decisions in Turkmenistan - feel ownership for torture in Turkmenistan.
«Berdymukhamedov must be confronted directly about the vast range of human rights violations he is responsible for,» says Dale.
Turkmenistan’s official report to CAT is just a recitation of various laws passed - some of them apparently just in time for the CAT session. Yet there’s no information about the reality on the ground, says Dale.
This week, the Turkmen government and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) announced the opening of a new human rights center in Ashgabat, to function under the Presidential Turkmen Institute for Human Rights and Democracy. UN Undersecretary General Helen Clark was in Ashgabat for the occasion and praised the Turkmen government for the initiative, which also has the backing of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Union.
Human rights activists have been skeptical that yet another presidentially-controlled office will have any impact. Dale has a test for the new center’s credibility: whether it will make available to the public the submissions of independent non-government organizations to the CAT - which the UN tready body acknowledges by including them on its official website.
«If not, this fact should always be noted in statements about allowing such a center as being a positive step forward by the Turkmen authorities,» he says.
Another test will be to see if the UN as well as Turkmen state-controlled offices in Ashgabat will even make available the official conclusions of the CAT experts themselves, in Russian, a UN language, and in Turkmen.
Giving these NGO findings and UN conclusions about torture any traction will require willingness from Western diplomats as well as UN and other international bodies to move from abstractions to concrete references, and trying to push for incremental steps. A visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross to prisons like Dashoguz - so far denied by the Turkmen government - would be a first step.
Источник :: EurasiaNet