France Urged to Raise Concerns About Turkmen Human Rights

France Urged to Raise Concerns About Turkmen Human Rights

Monday, 1 February, 2010
As Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov began a three-day trip to Paris, human rights defenders urged the French government to take a tougher line on the Central Asian state’s human rights record.

During Berdymuhammedov’s visit, which began on February 1, he was expected to meet representatives of government and parliament and take part in a business forum.

Ahead of the visit, activists from Turkmen and international human rights groups met Eric Millet, deputy head of the foreign ministry’s Central Asia and Caucasus department, and Olivier Guerot, deputy head of the human rights department.

“We called on French president Nicolas Sarkozy to broach the issue of human rights during his meeting with President Berdymuhammedov and urge him to improve the human rights situation and start a dialogue with human rights activists,” says Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights based in Bulgaria, who took part in the meeting.

To drive the message home, representatives of the Human Rights League, the Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Reporters without Borders and the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights held a press conference for French journalists.

After succeeding the authoritarian Saparmurat Niazov in 2007, Berdymuhammedov hinted at a possible liberalisation and declared himself in favour of a “state for the people”. He amnestied 11 prisoners of conscience and launched a National Human Rights Programme.

However, there have been no tangible changes in the human rights situation – many political prisoners remain in prison, dissidents still face persecution, freedom of movement is strictly curtailed, there are no independent media outlets, all media are rigorously censored and controlled by the authorities, and independent NGOs are denied official registration.

As Begmedova pointed out, nine United Nations special rapporteurs have been refused visas for Turkmenistan.

Analysts suspect the focus on French-Turkmen economic cooperation, in particular the role the Bouygues firm in plays in major construction projects in Turkmenistan, could keep human rights off the agenda.

“To rectify their mistakes, the Turkmen authorities need political will, and we understand this,” said Begmedova, “We suggested that French diplomats take a close look at Berdymuhammedov’s pledges and help him to fulfill them. For instance, enhancing exchange programs for students, lawyers, doctors and journalists in order to raise the capacity of local professionals”.

Other human rights defenders were critical of the stance taken by European Union members on human rights situation in Turkmenistan, which they see as too weak.

One area where they say EU diplomats could press for action is Ashgabat’s record of consistently ignoring the annual OSCE Human Dimension Conference, where member countries report on how they are fulfilling their commitments on human rights.

“France now has an excellent opportunity to improve this,” said FIDH president Souhayr Belhassen.

Vyacheslav Mamedov, who heads the Turkmen Democratic Civil Union based in the Netherlands, says western diplomatic engagement has a crucial role to play in pressing the Turkmen leadership to curb repression and embark on substantive change.

“This aim cannot be achieved without broad support from the international community,” he said.

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