March 18, 2010 Secretary-General United Nations Re: Your Upcoming Trip to Central Asia
Your trip to Central Asia comes at a time of retrenchment on respect for human rights throughout the region. It also comes at a time when international actors are seeking to ensure the Northern Distribution Route to Afghanistan and to maximize hydrocarbon energy supply to Europe. Human rights communities in Central Asia and the public they engage with are anxious that security interests are eclipsing human rights concerns, and that their concerns are not being heard.
There has never been a more important time for you to embody the role you envisioned as the "voice for the voiceless" by engaging governments in the region on human rights concerns and signaling to the public that the United Nations will work to promote human rights.
We hope that this briefing memorandum, summarizing key areas of concern in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, can help to identify issues to raise with these governments and about which to flag United Nations concern at the highest level in public outreach.
... Turkmenistan Turkmenistan’s government has taken some steps to alleviate the tyranny with which the government ruled under Saparmurat Niazov, who died in 2006. It released some political prisoners, allowed a handful of people previously banned from leaving the country to travel abroad, and reinstated pensions and the ninth year of compulsory education. These are all welcome steps. But there is no evidence to indicate a commitment on the part the government to remove the draconian restrictions on numerous civil and political rights that still persist. Moreover, the government threatens, harasses, and arrests those who question its policies, however modestly. Independent civil society activists and journalists cannot work freely in the country.
Of particular concern is the Turkmen government’s persistent denial of access to the country for independent human rights monitors, including (with one exception) UN special procedures, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and nongovernmental organizations. No fewer than nine UN special procedures remain unable to carry out country visits despite longstanding requests for access due to the government’s refusal to issue the required invitations.
Human Rights Watch has been denied access to the country for more than ten years and other groups such as Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights likewise remain unable to conduct in situ research there. In mid-December 2009, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) announced that following repeated rejections on the part of Turkmen authorities of their project proposals, they were forced to close. MSF was the last remaining international nongovernmental organization in Turkmenistan, where it had operated since 1999.
Unknown numbers of individuals continue to languish in Turkmen prisons on what appear to be politically motivated charges. The lack of transparency in the justice system, including closed trials and the absence of independent human rights monitoring, make it impossible to arrive at a reliable number. Well-known political prisoners include Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who worked with human rights organizations, and political dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov. Torture and ill-treatment remain major concerns, compounded by the complete lack of access to detention facilities by independent monitors, and the overall vacuum of human rights monitoring in the country.
Turkmen authorities use an informal system of travel bans to arbitrarily interfere with the right to travel abroad. In summer 2009, the authorities introduced new, burdensome requirements for studying abroad that prevented hundreds of students from traveling to private universities outside Turkmenistan. A group of 60 were allowed to travel to Bulgaria in January, but many more remain stranded. They have told human rights activists that your visit is "their last hope" for influence on the government to relent.
Two UN mechanisms have recently reviewed Turkmenistan’s human rights record, identifying serious violations and issuing detailed recommendations for steps the government needs to take to address them. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, following her 2008 visit to the country, concluded that "although the situation has much improved since 2007, individuals and religious communities, both registered and unregistered, remain under close scrutiny and still face a number of difficulties when manifesting their freedom of religion or belief." The special rapporteur raised concerns "about the imposition of legal or policy restrictions by the authorities of Turkmenistan on registration, places of worship, religious material, religious education and proselytism." Her recommendations to the Turkmen government included "removing from legislation the prohibition on unregistered religious activities and undue restrictions on religious material, education and attire as well as ceasing obstruction with regard to the building, opening, renting or use of places of worship by religious communities." The Turkmen government has not taken any steps to implement these recommendations.
The UPR, which Turkmenistan underwent in December 2008, also resulted in detailed recommendations for steps the Turkmen government should take to address human rights concerns. The government accepted a number of the UPR recommendations - including that it act against any form of harassment and intimidation of journalists, ensure effective freedom of worship for all religious communities, and take effective measures to allow NGOs to register and work freely. But it merely undertook to "consider" many others, including that it allow access to the country for UN special procedures, ICRC and other independent monitors, protect human rights defenders from persecution, liberalize media, and end torture in places of detention. The Turkmen government furthermore regrettably outright rejected a number of recommendations made during the UPR, considered by human rights experts, both local and international, as being among those most pressing to address, such as the release of political prisoners, conducting a transparent review of the political cases of past years, holding an independent inquiry into the 2006 death in prison of journalist Ogulsapar Muradova, and lifting arbitrary travel bans on activists and relatives of opposition members.
The government of Turkmenistan takes great pride in its stature in the United Nations and in particular as the host of the UN Centre for Conflict Prevention. For this reason, we believe you are in an excellent position to help ensure adequate follow up on all recommendations flowing from the UPR as well as those made by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, by raising them in your meetings with the Turkmen leadership. Specific steps the Turkmen government should be urged to take include the following:
•Allow activists, civic groups and journalists to operate freely and without fear of persecution; •Release all political prisoners, including human rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev and the dissident Gulgeldy Annaniazov; •Undertake a nationwide, transparent review of all cases of political imprisonment of the past years in order to establish the real number of political prisoners and ensure that victims of abuse are provided with justice; •Ensure unfettered access to the country, including to places of detention, for independent human rights monitors (including UN special rapporteurs, NGOs and other independent experts who have requested access); •Lift travel bans imposed on students, activists and relatives of opposition members, and dismantle the system that allows for government interference with residents’ ability to leave and return to Turkmenistan; and •Remove excessive restrictions on the right to freedom of religion, as recommended by the UN Special Rapporteir on freedom of religion. ... We thank you for your attention to these concerns and stand ready to provide further information and respond to any questions. We wish you a productive trip.
Holly Cartner Director, Europe and Central Asia division http://www.hrw.org/node/89415