Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Crime Wave in Turkmenistan

A rise in burglaries and muggings has accompanied the annual prisoner amnesty.
By IWPR staff
Crime is on the rise in Turkmenistan, with some blaming the thousands of prisoners amnestied by the president, while others say the dire state of the economy is the cause.

A police source said that the incidence of muggings and burglaries has leapt in recent weeks, with 80 per cent of those arrested coming from the group of 8,000 prisoners released in October under the annual amnesty granted by President Saparmurat Niazov, better known as Turkmenbashi.

“In the last 35 days alone, the number of offences was equivalent to the number committed over six months of last year. That’s quite a high figure,” said the source, who did not want to be identified.

The prisoner amnesty, which began in 1999, is timed to coincide with the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan each year. The majority of the 12,000 people held in prison are let out, with only political prisoners and those sentenced for economic crimes and major theft of state property ineligible for release.

That means drug traffickers, burglars and muggers are released back into a largely unsympathetic society that has little interest in helping them readjust.

Though Turkmenbashi has ordered that jobs should be found for those “who have repented for their deeds to help them to adapt to normal life, so they do not feel themselves to be outcasts and do not wish to return to their former ways”, that has not happened.

“We waited for our son to get out with such joy,” said Maiya Ashirovna. “He returned with the genuine desire to start a new life, to go and work and start a family. But a month has gone by, and we still can’t find a job for him. Everywhere when people find out that he has a previous conviction, they find any excuse to refuse him. He doesn’t even get hired for the lowest paid work, although he has higher education.”

This case is not an exception but rather the norm, say former prisoners. When applying for a state job, forms need to be filled out containing questions about any prior convictions. They say if the answer is “yes”, then the chances of getting the job is minimal.

“If even ‘normal’ people can’t find work, who’s going to get involved with former thieves and drug dealers,” said 30-year-old Merdan who was amnestied in 2004 and has been unable to find work since.

“We are practically forced to return to our former environment, and what else can we do? We have to feed ourselves and our families. So we continue to do what we used to be good at doing: stealing and selling drugs.”

The majority of amnestied prisoners in Turkmenistan were jailed for drug-related crimes. They received no treatment while inside, and there is nothing is available to help them adapt to their new lives outside.

“There are no centres for rehabilitating released prisoners in the country. No work is conducted at all on adapting amnestied prisoners to the conditions of life outside prison,” one member of a non-government organisation told IWPR.

The high level of unemployment among released prisoners is contributing to the current crime wave.

In one Ashgabat apartment block, drug addicts stole the electricity meter, leaving the building without power for five days. A week later the telephone cable was stolen and for two weeks the phones didn’t work. “They steal everything they can take away and sell,” a resident said.

There has been an increase in muggings of elderly people on the day they receive their pensions. Some thieves pretend to be neighbours who want to use the telephone, then attack the pensioners and steal their money

“One pensioner I know let a man live in her apartment for some extra money,” said a social worker. “He had just been amnestied and had come to look for work. The man lived with her for two weeks, and on the day that she received her pension he killed her, closed the apartment door and left.”

Police have responded to the situation by urging people not to open their doors to strangers and are making regular checks on those who live alone.

An Ashgabat policeman told IWPR that amnestied prisoners living in his district are summoned for questioning as soon as a crime is committed.

“From year to year the criminal situation after the amnesty gets worse, the released prisoners are unable to find work, and there is a drastically increase in the number of drug addicts. In this situation I don’t even know what’s better, amnesty or a full term of punishment,” he said.

There is no mention of rising crime levels on the heavily censored television news or in the newspapers. At the end of October, Turkmenbashi announced confidently that the country’s streets were safe and its amnestied prisoners gainfully employed.

Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, are ordered to reduce crime figures “by dozens of times” in reports to higher authorities.

“We don’t have the right to say that at the moment a crime wave is sweeping Turkmenistan,” said Ashir, who works for the police.

“We were given an order from the top to gently warn citizens to be more cautious and not to open their doors to strangers - but not to say that the situation is close to an emergency, and that all police departments are working overtime.”