Human Rights and Democracy: The 2012 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Country updates: Turkmenistan

Latest Update: 31 December 2013

The pace of reform in Turkmenistan remains slow and more substantive progress needs to be made.

The main event during the period October to December was a parliamentary election on 15 December. This election was significant because, for the first time since independence, it offered the electorate a choice of (state-sanctioned) political parties – the presidential Democratic Party of Turkmenistan and the Party of Industrialists & Entrepreneurs – alongside various other official groups.

The Central Commission for Elections & Referenda (CEC) of Turkmenistan announced the results on 18 December. The Democratic Party secured 47 seats and the Party of Industrialists & Entrepreneurs secured 14 seats, with the remaining 64 seats going to trade unions, youth organizations and citizens’ groups.

A Needs Assessment Mission (NAM) from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions & Human Rights (ODIHR) determined before the election that “Turkmenistan had made some improvement in consolidating the legal framework for elections, but that further progress needs to be made to meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections.” The NAM also noted that fundamental freedoms continue to be restricted and that the choice between competing political alternatives is limited in the absence of a functioning opposition. In the circumstances, therefore, ODIHR confined itself to the deployment of only a small Election Assessment Mission. This was a first for ODIHR, as it has not previously observed or assessed elections in Turkmenistan before (confining itself instead to the deployment only of election support teams).

ODIHR plans to issue a final report on the election in the first part of 2014. In the meantime, however, the EU issued an initial statement about the election at the OSCE’s Permanent Council on 19 December. This welcomed Turkmenistan’s invitation to ODIHR to assess the election, but also noted with concern the shortcomings identified earlier by ODIHR’s Needs Assessment Mission. The EU statement went on to underline that real political competition and genuine political pluralism, which would provide for the functioning of a political opposition, are needed for a truly democratic political system.

In other developments, Transparency International published the 2013 edition of its Corruption Perceptions Index on 3 December. Turkmenistan was ranked 166 out of 177 countries covered by the survey. In the previous edition, Turkmenistan was ranked 170 out of 174 countries.

Update: 30 September 2013

Overall the pace of reform in Turkmenistan remains slow, and more substantive progress needs to be made.  However, there have been some encouraging developments during the period July to September 2013.

The Turkmen government continues to engage with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Representatives from the ICRC had discussions in Ashgabat in July and September. These focused on the prospects for enhanced cooperation, including in the field of international humanitarian law, the establishment and development of relations between the ICRC and academic institutions in Turkmenistan, and the practical implementation of international human rights instruments.

The Organization for Security & Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) arranged a seminar in Ashgabat on 25 July to raise awareness on women’s rights among law enforcement officials in Turkmenistan. Some 25 Turkmen officials participated in the event, which focused on women’s security issues (including migration), domestic and other violence against women, as well as mechanisms to address women’s security needs. The participants were also informed about treaties and other international instruments covering these issues, including OSCE commitments on the promotion of gender equality.

Turkmenistan will hold elections on 15 December 2013 for the 125-seat parliament (Mejlis). A Needs Assessment Mission from the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions & Human Rights (ODIHR) visited Turkmenistan from 20 to 23 August 2013 to consider the state of the electoral framework in Turkmenistan and progress made since the presidential election on 12 February 2012. The Mission found that Turkmenistan has taken some steps forward, including a new law on political parties in January 2012 (although this is too late to have an impact on the presidential election). A new political party – the Party of Industrialists & Entrepreneurs, which was launched on 20 August 2012 – is also set to contest the parliamentary election. The election itself should help reveal the extent to which this represents a step towards a truly pluralistic system. ODIHR has recommended the deployment of a limited Election Assessment Mission for the December vote, with a subsequent report and recommendations for change.  It remains to be seen if Turkmenistan will invite ODIHR to deploy this team. The Mission’s full report can be found at: OSCE.

Turkmenistan responded at the Human Rights Council in September to all outstanding recommendations arising from its second UN Universal Periodic Review in April. Turkmenistan agreed with the UK’s specific recommendations to create real space for a multi-party parliamentary election in line with international standards, and to uphold full freedom of expression, via the internet and other forms of media, including by allowing access to social networking and other blocked sites, and by ensuring that all journalists can operate without fear of harassment. The UK acknowledges Turkmenistan’s positive response, and urges that changes be implemented in full accordance with Turkmenistan’s international commitments.

In a separate development, we welcome the release on 3 July of the former Minister of Culture, Geldimurat Nurmuhammedov, who was detained in October 2012 on drug charges.  Representatives of the EU, US and OSCE had lobbied on this case previously in the belief that his detention had been politically motivated. Mr Nurmuhammedov returned home in reasonably good health.

Update: 30 June 2013

There have been some encouraging developments during the period April to June. However, overall, the pace of reform in Turkmenistan remains slow and more substantive progress needs to be made.

There were two significant events during the last three months: Turkmenistan’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in April and the EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue in May. The UK’s interventions during the UPR process encouraged greater freedom of expression in the media, progress towards a more pluralistic society, a more substantive programme of cooperation on access by independent organisations (including by Special Rapporteurs), and progress on UN recommendations relating to Freedom of Religion or Belief. Turkmenistan received 183 recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council. It accepted 85 and rejected eight (including in respect of decriminalisation of same-sex relationships; release of political prisoners and human rights defenders; and revision of the law on religious activities). Turkmenistan will consider and provide its responses to the remaining 90 recommendations, including those from the UK, in time for the 24th session of the Human Rights Council in September. Some of these issues were discussed again during a visit to Ashgabat on 24 & 25 May by the UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović. Further background on Turkmenistan’s UPR can be found on the United Nations Human Rights website.

The latest round of the EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue took place in Ashgabat on 15 May. Discussions focussed on judicial reform (including prison conditions), national institutions for the protection of human rights, civil society development, freedom of expression and media, freedom of religion, the rights of minorities, women and children and cooperation in international fora. Individual cases were also raised. The UK welcomes constructive engagement of this sort and the role it plays in encouraging and supporting further reform in Turkmenistan.

There were also negative developments during the period in question, including the arrest and detention in May of a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist, Rovshen Yazmuhamedov. Mr Yazmuhamedov was released on 22 May. The exact nature of the charges against him, however, remains unclear.

The UK had a number of exchanges with Turkmenistan on human rights in the period from April to June. Human rights were among a range of issues raised by the senior Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, The Rt Hon Baroness Warsi PC, when she visited Turkmenistan on 10 -11 June.

Update: 31 March 2013

There have been some encouraging developments during the period January to March, but also developments that give rise to concern.  Overall, the pace of reform in Turkmenistan remains slow and more substantive progress needs to be made.

President Berdimuhamedov approved on 3 January the mass media law passed by Turkmenistan’s parliament on 22 December 2012.  The new law contains a number of positive features which should move Turkmenistan closer to fulfilling its international commitments.  We will monitor its impact on the media environment in Turkmenistan.  In doing so, we will take into account assessments by international NGOs such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders.  Freedom House currently ranks Turkmenistan 196 out of 197 countries in its latest Freedom of the Press index; Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkmenistan 177 out of the 179 countries it covers.

Two human rights activists, Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapadurdy Hajiev, were released on 16 February.  They were jailed in 2006 ostensibly as a result of firearms-related charges.  Human rights defenders believe however that their conviction had more to do with their involvement in the production of a documentary about Turkmenistan for French television.  The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined separately that their arrest and detention violated international law.  Both were the subject of regular lobbying by the EU.

Turkmenistan’s Interdepartmental Commission on Human Rights has started work on a National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP). This work is supported by the EU, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) as part of a broader initiative to increase understanding in Turkmenistan about international human rights standards and mechanisms.  The plan could, as the UNDP Deputy Resident Representative noted in March, help Turkmenistan’s engagement on the outcome of its second Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council in April.

There were also negative developments during the first quarter of 2013.  We have flagged in recent updates reports of undue pressure against certain religious communities in Turkmenistan.  We have since seen further credible reports that Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to face unwarranted pressure from local authorities. We will continue to monitor this and when appropriate will raise concerns both bilaterally and with EU partners, including during the next round of the EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights dialogue due in May.