Until all-embracing treason law is changed, many high-profile prisoners have no chance of claiming amnesty.
By Inga Sikorskaya in Bishkek (RCA No. 533, 21-Feb-08)
In the latest mass release of prisoners in Turkmenistan, no political prisoners of note were freed. Lawyers and human rights activists say this will not happen until the authorities change repressive legislation on treason, which automatically rules out the possibility of amnesty.
On February 13, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov signed an order to amnesty 1,269 prisoners in honour of National Flag Day, including a number serving life sentences. All but 238 of them were jailed last year, in other words under Berdymuhammedov’s rule rather than that of his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov, who died in December 2006.
Flag Day actually falls on February 19, but Berdymuhammedov’s announcement was published in the press on February 14 – the anniversary of his inauguration as president one year ago.
Berdymuhammedov pointed out that he was delivering on a pledge to free a group of convicts on every state holiday. Turkmenistan has numerous national celebrations, the most notable of which are Constitution Day on May 18 and Independence Day, October 27, and there is every likelihood more prisoners will walk free in the course of this year.
It is, however, highly unlikely that the list will include many political prisoners, or more precisely those convicted of criminal offences for clearly political reasons.
A mass amnesty in September, for example, did not see significant political figures among the 9,000 people released. That dashed hopes raised by the release of 11 people the previous month whose cases were clearly identifiable as political.
Legal experts say that apart from the political will at the top, one major obstacle to freeing high-profile prisoners is the extensive scope of Turkmenistan’s treason legislation, under which many of these cases have been tried.
The law was amended in 2003 to embrace a range of offences other than those normally classed as treason in other countries. For example, it includes vague categories such as anyone who “sows doubts” about the policies of the president, whom the wording specifically defines as Niazov; anyone attempting to damage the country politically or economically; and officials who “place personal interests above the national interest”.
Furthermore, the definition of treason also includes anyone who aids and abets the above offences, or fails to report them to the authorities.
A conviction for treason carries a mandatory life imprisonment with no possibility of amnesty or pardon.
As a lawyer in Turkmenistan pointed out, the law as it stands can be applied to almost anyone.
“As long as we have this unparalleled legal provision that criminalises any expression of discontent with the status quo, all amnesties will be useless,” said the lawyer.
The treason law was made more severe following a failed attempt on Niazov’s life in November 2002.
In the wave of detentions that followed, 55 people were swiftly convicted of treason while similar charges were later brought not against other senior officials deemed to be suspect, but also their relatives.
In a society where extended family and clan ties are important, the application of the “aiding and abetting” clause to relatives is seen as a powerful instrument of control.
“In his instructions to the security services concerning accused persons, Niazov told them to check [distant] family members for treason… which meant that 20 or 30 more so-called traitors could then be revealed,” explained Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Bulgarian-based Turkmen Helsinki Fund for Human Rights.
Because of the closed nature of Turkmenistan and the lack of reliable information on the judicial and penal system, no accurate data exists as to the total number of people convicted of treason in Turkmenistan.
The consensus among human rights activists is that at least 1,000 people are currently serving life sentences for this offence.
Begmedova argues that Berdymuhammedov needs to show his mettle by admitting that some of the laws passed when Niazov was in power were flawed, and then scrap them.
An analyst in Turkmenistan disagreed, saying, “Officially abolishing this notorious ruling would mean Berdymuhammedov admitting that mistakes were under his predecessor’s rule - and the new president is not ready for that.”
Yet Vyacheslav Mamedov, chair of the Netherlands-based Civil Democratic Union of Turkmenistan, does not believe the terms of the treason law “tie Berdymuhammedov’s hands” or prevent him from granting an amnesty to political prisoners if he really wants to.
A journalist in Ashgabat agreed, arguing that it would “cost the authorities nothing” to ignore the current treason law and free those convicted under it.
He pointed out that there is even a precedent for this. The 11 figures pardoned last August included Turkmenistan’s mufti or chief Islamic cleric Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who was sentenced under the treason law in 2004. He was found guilty of involvement in the 2002 assassination plot against Niazov, although most observers believed he was punished for speaking out against the harsh sentences handed down in earlier trials, and for other criticising other government policies. Iklym Iklymov, a businessman convicted of treason for the assassination plot, was also among those released.
A local government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it would be unwise to read much into this one-off action.
“So what?” said the official. “Note that no mass releases [of convicted traitors] has yet taken place. The current law on treason still serves as a psychological barrier that Berdymuhammedov does not dare break through.”
(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their security.) http://www.iwpr.net/?apc_state=hrufrca342853&l=en&s=f&o=342943