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

Doors of Turkmenistan Closed to Rights Activists

The authorities in Turkmenistan continue to deny international human rights monitors access to the country despite claims of greater openness.

“Although visits by foreign diplomats and businessmen to Ashgabat are becoming more common, and the growing number of contacts between Turkmenistan and the rest of the world allows to speak about the openness of this country, human rights activists have been denied access to Turkmenistan for many years,” according to a statement from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that appeared in late September. “The Turkmen authorities decline their applications for entry visas when they want to assess the human rights situation in the country,”

The Norwegian group together with a number of leading human rights activists is urging western companies to pay heed to human rights in Turkmenistan.

The Turkmen government has not responded to the Helsinki group’s statement.

The Central Asian state is party to numerous international conventions concerning human rights, but continues to prevent groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Freedom House from entering the country. Turkmenistan’s own human rights community is now largely based abroad.

Analysts say that under pressure from the international community, the Turkmen government is considering letting the International Red Crescent in to visit prisons, but that will not herald a wider influx of rights activists.

“The Turkmen authorities are not ready for such a step,” said Vyacheslav Mamedov, who heads the Civil Democratic Union of Turkmenistan, based in the Netherlands.

After taking office in 2007 after the death of authoritarian leader Saparmurat Niazov, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov flagged up a range of liberalising reforms.

For a time, observers suspended judgement in the hope that this liberalisation would happen, and that the new leader would review the abuses committed during Niazov’s years in power. Such hopes were nurtured by the release of 11 high-profile political prisoners, and the announcement of a National Human Rights Programme.

Tajigul Begmedova, who heads the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, based in Bulgaria, says the Berdymuhammedov administration has failed to act on its pledges of change, and that “it has thereby shown that it is following in the footsteps of the previous regime”.

Begmedova notes that since Turkmenistan became independent in 1991, large numbers of people have been arrested on politically-motivated charges – even for being related to an opposition member. Many are still in prison, with little chance their cases will be reviewed, since trials in Turkmenistan are notoriously unfair and there are no independent prison inspections.

As evidence for the lack of change, analysts cite the continued pressure on dissidents and independent journalists, the use of torture and other abuses against detainees, prosecutions on religious grounds, and ethnic discrimination. In the latest example of restrictions placed on freedom of movement, the Turkmen authorities this summer prevented many students from leaving the country to study at foreign universities. (For a report on this, see Turkmenistan Blocks Students Attending Foreign Universities, 23-Aug-09.)

Analysts say the authorities prevent international rights monitors from visiting the country because they are all too aware of the kind of abuses that would be highlighted.

“Berdymuhammedov knows that if human rights organisations came here, all the negative aspects of domestic policy would be uncovered and publicised,” said a media observer in the Dashoguz region of northern Turkmenistan.

Another observer, based in the capital Ashgabat, said human rights activists would be naïve to think they might be allowed in.

“Journalists, historians and researchers are often unable to come here, as are ordinary people who have left the country and now want to visit family and friends back in Turkmenistan, or obtain the documents they need to claim a pension,” said the observer. “If Turkmenistan is not actually becoming more isolated, it is not becoming less so, either.”

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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