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Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights




Amnesty international

Concerns in Europe and

Central Asia

January – June 2004


This country entry has been extracted from a forthcoming Amnesty International report, CONCERNS IN EUROPE AND CENTRAL ASIA: January - June 2004 (AI Index: EUR 01/005/2004) issued in September 2004. Anyone wishing further information on other Amnesty International concerns in Europe and Central Asia should consult the full document.

International concern about human rights

On 15 April the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights adopted its second resolution on the human rights situation in Turkmenistan. It expressed “grave concern”, among other issues, at “the persistence of a governmental policy based on repression of all political opposition activities”, at the “abuse of the legal system through arbitrary detention, imprisonment and surveillance of persons who try to exercise their freedoms of thought, expression, assembly and association, and harassment of their families”, and at “restrictions on the exercise of freedoms … conscience, religion and belief”. It also deplored the continued refusal of the authorities to grant access of independent bodies including the International Committee of the Red Cross, family members and lawyers to those convicted following the November 2002 alleged assassination attempt on President Saparmurad Niyazov. Among other demands the Commission called on the authorities to “remove the new restrictions on the activities of public organizations … stipulated in the new Law on Public Associations adopted on 21 October 2003 … and to enable non-governmental organizations … and other civil society actors to carry out their activities without hindrance”.

A long list of special procedures including the Special Rapporteurs on the independence of judges and lawyers; on the question of torture; on freedom of opinion and expression and on freedom of religion and belief had applied to the authorities of Turkmenistan for invitations to visit the country. The resolution on the human rights situation in Turkmenistan adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights at its 59th Session in April 2003 had called on the procedures to seek invitations to visit Turkmenistan. However, as stated in a note by the secretariat of the Commission issued on 20 February none of the special procedures had received an invitation.

Clampdown on dissent continued

Anyone perceived to be critical of the regime remained at risk of persecution. The relatives of exiled dissidents continued to be targeted in an attempt to stop those in exile from criticizing government policies and speaking out about human rights violations in Turkmenistan.

AI and seven other international and Turkmen non-governmental organizations urged the US State Department in a letter of 26 May to designate Turkmenistan a "country of particular concern" under the United States’ International Religious Freedom Act unless the country made significant progress including by “register[ing] all of the religious groups existing in the country that wish to register”, by “remove[ing] all undue restrictions on religious activity, including the ban on religious gatherings, unregistered groups, religious education for unregistered confessions, and others” and by “ceas[ing] all forms of harassment and undue interference in the activities of religious groups or individuals for their religious beliefs”.

In the period under review the authorities of Turkmenistan took a number of steps to avoid being classified as a “country of particular concern”, which could lead to the USA taking steps ranging from diplomatic protest to targeted trade sanctions. The steps taken by the authorities included the de jure loosening of previously imposed restrictions on registering religious communities and the registration of several religious minority congregations. However, implementation of these measures still remained to be tested as intimidation of religious minorities continued unabated.

Prisoner of conscience forcibly confined in psychiatric hospital

On 13 February 63-year-old Gurbandurdy Durdykuliyev was taken from his house in the village of Suvchy in the Balkan region of western Turkmenistan by some six medical personnel and another six in plainclothes in an ambulance and was forcibly confined in a psychiatric hospital in the town of Balkanabad (formerly Nebitdag). Shortly after his hospitalization he was transferred across the country to a psychiatric hospital located in a former Soviet pioneer camp in Garashsyzlyk district in the eastern Lebap region.

The first time his wife got permission to visit him was in April and she was only allowed to see him in the presence of representatives of the hospital administration. One doctor, reportedly referring to instructions received from the authorities, threatened Gurbandurdy Durdykuliyev’s wife that if she passed on information about her husband’s case to media outlets abroad she would not be allowed to visit him again.

Reportedly, a commission at the psychiatric hospital in Balkanabad that was chaired by an official from the Ministry of Health announced that Durdykuliyev was mentally ill. He was officially diagnosed as suffering from “wild paranoia in an aggressive form”.

On 3 January Gurbandurdy Durdykuliyev had sent a letter to President Saparmurad Niyazov and the governor of Balkan region, urging them to authorize a two-day-long demonstration on the main square of Balkanabad on 18 and 19 February, to coincide with the President’s birthday. He wrote: "We want to carry out a peaceful demonstration… to express our disagreement with the policies of the President and other senior government officials and urge them to rectify any shortcomings in due course… I ask you to refrain from using force against the participants of the meeting." Gurbandurdy Durdykuliyev had earlier repeatedly criticized President Niyazov’s policies in interviews he gave to the US-Radio Liberty and had openly spoken about the necessity to form an opposition political party.

AI considered Gurbandurdy Durdykuliyev to be a prisoner of conscience, forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital solely to punish him for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. AI was concerned that Gurbandurdy Durdykuliyev may be being inappropriately administered psychotropic drugs.

Punished for importing a banned historical novel

Writer and journalist Rakhim Esenov, aged 78, was summoned to the Ministry of National Security (MNS) on 23 February and accused of "smuggling" 800 copies of his historical novel Ventsenosny Skitalets ("The Crowned Wanderer") into Turkmenistan. The book had been banned for 10 years from the publishing houses in Turkmenistan and Rakhim Esenov was only able to get it printed in Moscow in 2003. The copies were delivered to his apartment in the capital, Ashgabat, in January, but customs officers removed them after a few days, alleging that they had been imported illegally. Rakhim Esenov insisted that he had imported them legally and had paid customs duty.

On 2 March it emerged that Rakhim Esenov had been charged with "inciting social, national and religious hatred" using mass media. He believed that this charge referred to statements made by characters in his book, that is set during the Mogul empire which was founded in the 16th century. In February 1997 President Saparmurad Niyazov had publicly criticized the book and denounced the author for making "historical errors," but Esenov refused to make the "corrections" the President demanded.

During questioning Rakhim Esenov was reportedly asked for the names of his “smuggling partners", and who had financed the novel. Following the interrogation, Rakhim Esenov suffered a stroke and was taken to hospital. He had already been in poor health before his detention, having recently suffered a heart attack. However, the interrogations continued and he was placed in the MNS’s investigation-isolation prison on 26 February.

On 23 or 24 February Rakhim Esenov’s son-in-law Igor Kaprielov was taken to the MNS and accused of conspiring with Rakhim Esenov in the smuggling of the books. On 31 March he was given a five-year suspended sentence for “smuggling” (Article 254 part 2 of the Criminal Code) by Azatlyk district court in Ashgabat.

Rakhim Esenov’s friend, the journalist Ashirkuli Bayriyev, was summoned to the MNS on the evening of 1 March. Shortly after his arrest, his son, an English language teacher, and his wife, a journalist, were both dismissed from their jobs. He was charged with “slander in a public presentation or mass media” (Art. 132 part 2). It was unclear whether his arrest was connected to Rakhim Esenov’s case.

Following international pressure, Rakhim Esenov and Ashirkuli Bayriyev were released on 9 and 12 March respectively. However, they were placed under travel restrictions and the charges against them were not dropped.

Targeted for giving interviews to the US Radio Liberty

Khalmurat Gylychdurdyev, aged 64, was held incommunicado in the detention facilities of the MNS in Ashgabat from 23 until the night of 26 June, when he was returned to his family by MNS officers. There were strong indications that Khalmurat Gylychdurdyev was targeted to punish him for giving interviews to the US-Radio Liberty that frequently broadcasts programmes critical of Turkmenistan’s government policies. He had repeatedly been summoned to the MNS to question him about his contacts with Radio Liberty before; however, this time fear for his safety was heightened as he had never been detained overnight. To AI’s knowledge, no charges were brought against him.

In the morning of 23 June he went to the eye hospital in the capital, Ashgabat, for a check-up following an eye operation the previous day. Three MNS officers were waiting for him at the hospital and took him to the MNS. His family searched for him all night, to no avail.

During questioning he was pressured to stop giving interviews to Radio Liberty. After his release he told AI: "They wanted me to sign a letter to the President they had prepared in my name. I was supposed to apologize for passing on lies and secret information about the economy and other issues to Radio Liberty. How would I know any secret information? I have no access to such information. I am a pensioner, that’s all." He reported that he was threatened his home would be confiscated and he and his family would be “sent into the desert”.

While no physical pressure was exerted on him during his detention, he did not receive any medical treatment, although he required treatment following the recent eye operation. As a result he had to undergo a second eye operation after his release.

On 25 June Khalmurad Gylychdurdyev’s daughter, Zhenet Gylychdurdyeva, was dismissed from her work as a senior inspector at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where she had worked since 1989. She was told she had been dismissed for failing to report to the Ministry that her father had been arrested. She said she would have told them about his detention, but as he was held incommunicado she did not have any confirmed information about his arrest and his whereabouts. The Deputy Minister reportedly also indicated that she was actually dismissed on the instructions of the MNS.

Possible prisoner of conscience Mukhametkuli Aymuradov (update to AI Index: EUR 61/002/2002)

Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, aged 59, was transferred back to the maximum-security prison in the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) in May or June where he had been kept for several years. In November 2003 he had been transferred to Tedzhen prison in southern Turkmenistan in accordance with his verdict that stipulated the transfer to a less harsh regime after having served several years in the maximum-security prison. It is believed that he was sent back to Turkmenbashi prison, where prison conditions are known to be particularly harsh, for three years. The authorities did not inform his family about the transfer and when his wife heard rumours about it and went to the prison in Turkmenbashi on 25 June she was not told the exact reasons for the transfer. However, it is likely that he was accused of having violated prison regulations in the detention facility in Tedzhen. His family told AI that Mukhametkuli Aymuradov had been extremely cautious not to violate any prison rules so as to avoid any conflict with the authorities. By the end of the period under review his family had been unable to visit him or to pass on medicine and food parcels to him.

AI is seriously concerned about Mukhametkuli Aymuradov=s health. He has not been receiving appropriate medical attention for health problems which have included a gastric ulcer, cholecystitis, a heart attack and recurring inflammation of the kidneys and the bladder. Prison conditions in the maximum-security prison in Turkmenbashi are particularly harsh and Mukhametkuli Aymuradov is not permitted any walks in fresh air.

Mukhametkuli Aymuradov was convicted in 1995 of anti-state crimes, including Aattempted terrorism@, and sentenced to 12 years= imprisonment after a reportedly unfair trial. There were reports that the case against Mukhametkuli Aymuradov and his co-defendant Khoshali Garayev was fabricated solely to punish them for their association with exiled opponents of the government. In December 1998 both men were sentenced to an additional 18 years= imprisonment in connection with an alleged prison escape attempt. Khoshali Garayev died in September 1999 in Turkmenbashi maximum-security prison under suspicious circumstances.

AI is calling for the release of possible prisoner of conscience Mukhametkuli Aymuradov because of his poor health and on the grounds that repeated calls for a fair retrial have gone unheeded, and that there does not appear to be a prospect of his being given a fair trial.

Religious leader Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah sentenced to long prison term

On 2 March former Mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment on treason charges by Azatlyk district court in Ashgabat with the first five years to be served in a maximum-security prison. He was accused of involvement in the alleged assassination attempt on President Niyazov in November 2002. The President removed Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah from his post as chief mufti and deputy chair of the Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs in January 2003.

There are allegations that the charges against Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah were fabricated and that he was targeted for expressing dissent. For example, he was believed to have repeatedly objected to the extensive use of the President’s book Rukhnama – a core element of the President’s personality cult – in mosques. Imams are forced to display the Rukhnama in a prominent place in the mosque and quote from it in their sermons. In addition, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah did not advocate the imposition of the death penalty on the suspects in the November 2002 alleged assassination attempt on the President while other senior officials called for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah’s expression of his opinion on this issue, before President Niyazov himself decided that the death penalty would not be reintroduced, could have been perceived as undermining the President’s authority. There were also allegations that one of the reasons for targeting him was his Uzbek ethnicity and a government policy to remove ethnic minorities from particularly influential posts replacing them with ethnic Turkmen.

According to the radio Deutsche Welle, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah and other prisoners from five cells of the maximum-security prison in Turkmenbashi were beaten by Interior Ministry officers in the night from 23 to 24 May and Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah “suffered significantly”.

Conscientious objectors (update to AI Indexes: EUR 01/007/2002 and EUR 01/001/2004)

In May Jehovah’s Witnesses Mansur Masharipov and Vepa Tuvakov were arrested in their home town of Dashoguz, near the border with Uzbekistan, and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment for refusing military service on religious grounds on 28 May and 3 June respectively. AI regards the two men as prisoners of conscience and is calling for their prompt and unconditional release.

In the period under review seven Jehovah’s Witness prisoners of conscience were released. Nikolay Shelekhov was released upon completion of his prison sentence on 2 January. The release of the other six – Rinat Babadzhanov, Aleksandr Matveyev, Shokhrat Mitogorov, Ruslan Nasyrov, and Rozymamed Satlykov and Kurban Zakirov – on 11 and 12 June, was believed to be part of a number of recent measures taken by the authorities of Turkmenistan to avoid being classified as a "country of particular concern" by the USA (see above).

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