United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Turkmenistan In areas such as freedom of expression, the rule of law, and the treatment of political prisoners, the evidence is either of inaction or further retrograde steps.
In 2009, there were indications that Turkmenistan was backtracking on previous improvements and commitments to human rights. The Turkmen government continues to state that it is ready for dialogue with the international community but this is not matched by concrete action. In areas such as freedom of expression, the rule of law, and the treatment of political prisoners, the evidence is either of inaction or further retrograde steps.
The slow pace of change is exacerbated by the lack of representative government. Although Parliament was increased from 65 to 125 members in December 2008, this has not resulted in any increase in transparency or democratic political process, and there remains no real move towards introducing a parliamentary political opposition.
The UN system, the EU and individual EU Member States continue to offer support to the Turkmen authorities as they seek to fulfil their human rights commitments. A third EU—Turkmenistan Enhanced Human Rights Dialogue took place in Brussels in June. For the second time the Turkmen side accepted a list of individual human rights cases and agreed to respond in writing. Disappointingly, the Turkmen government has yet to deliver a full response or fully comply with the recommendations it accepted in the course of its UPR in December 2008.
In our contacts with the Turkmen authorities, the UK continues to encourage respect for human rights as an integral part of stable and prosperous development and integration with the international economy. Through our Embassy in Ashgabat, we provided a targeted programme of support to the relevant government agencies as well as the very few non-governmental bodies operating in Turkmenistan.
This includes work with the Turkmen government’s National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, which has allowed us to share UK experience of drafting human rights legislation, working with UN Special Rapporteurs and ombudsmen systems and other aspects of compliance with our international obligations.
Freedom of Expression During 2009 there has been no improvement in respect of freedom of expression or freedom of association. Turkmenistan is classified by Reporters without Borders as one of 12 countries that is an enemy of the internet. All media is tightly controlled, with no independent newspapers or television or radio stations. News coverage consists primarily of a chronicle of official events with no independent editorial comment.
Journalists who cooperate with foreign media have been subject to harassment and arbitrary detention. Working with the National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, the British Embassy has provided advice on the reform of legislation regulating media activity and has sponsored workshops on media regulation with experts from the BBC World Service Trust, Oxford University and other bodies.
Civil Society There is still great suspicion of NGOs, particularly those working on human rights issues. International NGOs find it impossible to obtain visas. No truly independent NGO has successfully registered in the last four years. Registration is a pre-requisite for an NGO to operate in Turkmenistan. The government has shown no signs of changing this requirement in the near future.
We are also concerned that Medicins Sans Frontieres closed down its operations in mid-December after more than ten years, as they have not managed to secure any suitable agreements from the government to continue operations. A Medicins Sans Frontieres administrator will remain in Turkmenistan until the current agreement ends in June 2010 in the hope that the Turkmen authorities might reconsider.
The British Embassy will continue to support the small group of surviving NGOs. With the Soros Central Eurasia Project and the International NGO Training and Research Centre we are working to establish a local NGO training centre.
In 2009, the Turkmen government backtracked on its support for international scholarships when it placed a near total ban on all students trying to study overseas, by introducing new requirements to obtain special permissions from the education and migration ministries. The British Embassy, as local EU Presidency, was active in raising EU concerns with the government. This requirement was eased in late summer. However, there remains a total ban on any students trying to study at the American University in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Freedom of Religion The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir, visited Turkmenistan in September 2008. Her report contained a number of recommendations, which, more than 18 months later, have yet to be fully implemented.
A number of religious groups continued to be refused registration in 2009. This includes Jehovah’s Witnesses who have had their requests for registration turned down on many occasions. They have also had their meetings disrupted by law-enforcement agencies claiming to be looking for drugs. Turkmenistan has also backtracked on a commitment to investigate alternatives to military service for Jehovah’s Witness followers. Registered religious groups are able to practise their beliefs discreetly, but there continues to be a ban on the importation of religious literature.
Discrimination There is some discrimination against ethnic minorities in Turkmenistan. This generally takes the form of ethnic Turkmen being the favoured candidates for public-sector positions. Minorities are also excluded in new laws and public decisions. There are worrying signs that incidents of discrimination are on the increase, particularly with regard to ethnic Russians. When jobs are advertised the wording makes it clear that the successful applicant will be a Turkmen national. Although ethnic Russians may hold Turkmen passports, for the purposes of employment they are not deemed to be Turkmen nationals and are not considered, even though there is nothing to prevent them from applying. Some new laws just stipulate „Turkmen“, which can exclude any other ethnic minority regardless of whether they hold a Turkmen passport.
Political Prisoners There were some welcome presidential pardons immediately after President Berdimuhamedov took office in 2007. But since then, there have been very few pardons for political prisoners.
It is disappointing that Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, a former political dissident, remains in prison after his return to Turkmenistan from Norway where he was given refugee status. His current whereabouts are unknown. After much lobbying by the international community, including by the British Embassy as local EU Presidency, the case of the environmental activist, Andrey Zatoka, was reviewed and his five-year sentence was reduced on appeal to a fine. He was permitted to renounce his Turkmen citizenship and to leave for Russia in November.
The release of political prisoners was one of the UK recommendations at Turkmenistan’s UPR in 2008. This was rejected by the Turkmen government. The actual number of political prisoners in Turkmenistan remains unknown.
Rule of Law In 2009, the Turkmen President set up an interdepartmental commission to examine Turkmenistan’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). This has led the Turkmen government to agree to implement a project proposed by the British Embassy aimed at updating and revising the penal code, to bring it into line with international standards, and reforming the criminal justice system. It is expected that the amended draft of the penal code will be submitted to Parliament for passing into law early in 2010.
An important aspect of the UK assistance provided in the development of the new penal code has been to ensure the proper observance of children’s rights. There were welcome signals from the government in 2009 that a separate section on juveniles will be incorporated into the new penal code. This will ensure considerable improvement in detention conditions for minors, including better access to education, unlimited family visits, increased parcel allowance including food provisions, unlimited telephone calls to their families, and a greater focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Turkmenistan accepted the UK’s recommendation at its UPR that it will work to improve access to justice and the independence of the judiciary. We provided support to back up these recommendations including a visit to assist the National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. However, we continue to have serious concerns, particularly with regard to the implementation of child-labour laws, prison conditions and penal reform.
Prison conditions remain extremely worrying. The Turkmen government has still not granted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to Turkmen prisons. We continued to press the case for ICRC access throughout 2009, sharing expertise on ICRC mandate implementation and bringing in prison experts from countries in the region where the ICRC already has access. The Embassy also arranged a series of visits to the UK by senior Turkmen prison-management officials to share UK experience in implementing human rights standards in prisons.
We also continued to develop links throughout 2009 with the Turkmen Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Liberties Protection. The Chairman of the Committee and another member visited the UK in November, to familiarise themselves with UK best practice in implementing human rights into international and domestic law. This visit gave rise to the suggestion that Turkmenistan’s prison system should come under the control of the Ministry of Justice rather than the Ministry of Interior, as at present.
We will continue to monitor the progress in the Turkmen parliament of proposals for reforming the penitentiary and juvenile justice system, the mechanisms of judicial protection, improving legislation on religious organisations, and on media regulation.
Foreign & British Commonwealth Office