Human Rights and Democracy Report 2015 - Human Rights Priority Country update report: July to December 2016 - Turkmenistan

The human rights situation in Turkmenistan continued to cause significant concern over the period from July to December 2016. There were increased reports of independent journalists being attacked and arrested; further religious restrictions, and the continued erosion of civil liberties. There were a few positive indicators, such as the adoption of a new constitution which formally established the office of Human Rights Ombudsman; the announcement of multi-party presidential elections, and a visit by EU Ambassadors to a youth prison. However, progress overall was slow.

The National Action Plan for Human Rights which was launched in March 2016 made only limited progress. A meeting of the Turkmen Interdepartmental Commission on Monitoring and Compliance with Human Rights Obligations met in August to discuss how the plan should be implemented. At the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Human Dimension Meeting in Warsaw in September, the EU welcomed the Plan and hoped it would help to narrow the gap between existing legislation and its practical implementation. This point was underlined at the regular EU-Turkmenistan Trade and Cooperation Agreement Joint Committee meeting on 10 November. We welcome that a high level delegation from Turkmenistan attended the Human Dimension meeting for the second year running.

The OSCE organised a course for 50 students at the Institute of International Relations and Interior Ministry Institute on the protection of human rights during criminal proceedings and investigations. Under the National Human Rights Action Plan, the UN Development Programme is working with the Turkmen Supreme Court to train judges and lawyers across the country on human rights and international standards of justice, with funding by the embassy.

The Presidential election was announced during the Elders Council Meeting in October and is set for 12 February 2017. This will be the first time that 3 different political parties will put forward candidates: the Democratic Party, Agrarian Party and Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. Citizens action groups have put forward a further 6 candidates, as allowed under the new constitution, though it is not clear whether they complied with all the registration requirements. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been invited to observe. ODIHR did not send a full observation mission to the last elections in 2012 as they considered a mission would not add value given the limits on fundamental freedoms and lack of competing political alternatives (there was only one political party). The ODIHR visited Turkmenistan in December to see how preparations had progressed but it is not yet clear whether a full observer mission will be sent in February.

There have been a number of cases of the harassment and arrest of journalists, as well as an unexplained death over the reporting period. July saw the first anniversary of the imprisonment of Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a contributor to RFE/RL who was jailed for 3 years in 2015. In September Mr Altymurad Annamuradov died after being abducted and severely beaten. He was the brother of exiled journalist and activist Chary Annamuradov. This happened shortly after Chary Annamuradov was released having been detained in Belarus on an outstanding arrest warrant. It follows the unexplained deaths of his 3 other brothers in previous years. In October, Galina Kucherenko, an animal rights activist, was harassed, allegedly by the authorities, following her campaign to rid Ashgabat of stray animals. In the same month, Soltan Achilova, a correspondent for Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was attacked and her camera taken, reportedly by plain clothes police officers, for filming queues for cigarettes and groups of protesting women who were being refused permission to purchase them. This was followed in November by alleged threats to enforce a suspended gaol sentence against Rovshen Yazmuhamedov, another RFE correspondent. Azatly Allashov, another RFE/RL correspondent, was arrested on 3 December and beaten badly, reportedly for possessing chewing tobacco. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media later called on authorities to release Allashov, the EU has made several representations to the Turkmen Authorities regarding these cases.

It was reported in July that the body of one of the alleged “coup plotters” against then President Niyazov in 2002 was returned to his family. This was the first time he had been heard of since his sentencing to life imprisonment in December 2002. A UN report in December by the Committee against Torture reiterated its previous recommendations, noted its concerns at continuing allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment and called for the President Mr Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov to make a public statement “affirming unambiguously that torture will not be tolerated”.

The fate of some prisoners, however, was better. As is traditional on important National Days, the President pardoned 612 prisoners, including 26 foreign citizens, on 2 July to mark the end of Ramadan. A further 1,500 were released in honour of Independence Day on 21 October and 561 for Neutrality Day in December. Over 300 Iranian prisoners will be extradited back to Iran following an agreement between the 2 countries.

The Turkmen government invited Ambassadors from the EU, UN, US and OSCE to visit a youth detention facility in Mary Province. This was the first time foreign diplomats had visited this Detention Centre.

In September, as part of its activities to promote the development of internet journalism in Turkmenistan, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe Centre (OSCE) in Ashgabat organised a practical course for over 40 journalists on techniques and approaches to visual information in internet journalism, Access to the social media however remains limited as sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube continued to be blocked and instances are increasing of periodic blocking of more general access to the internet, including foreign newspapers, government websites, Skype and popular search engines.

We continue to hear reports that certain religious groups are being discriminated against. Turkmenistan’s religious law of April 2016 requires all religious organisations to register or re-register with the Ministry of Justice in order to operate legally. Unregistered religious groups can be held liable for criminal penalties for any group activities. However, reports indicate that previously registered groups as well as previously unregistered groups have been refused permission to register. The government held a roundtable in December with religious groups to discuss this issue but there is no indication yet of whether this has eased the situation.

The implementation of the “National Action Plan of Turkmenistan on Gender equality 2015-2020”, approved in January 2015, is still under discussion following a coordination meeting in July and a visit in August by a delegation from the UN (UN Women) led by the Regional Director in Europe on Central Asia to discuss joint action. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) also visited in October and organised a workshop on gender based violence for the Interdepartmental Commission on the Implementation of International Obligations of Turkmenistan on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.

Turkmenistan adopted General Comment 4 on the right to inclusive education and General Comment 3 on Women and Girls with disabilities under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in September. UNICEF announced they will be supporting the Turkmen government in adhering to the principles of CRPD and implementing these two General Comments. The Embassy continued to support a project with a local NGO Yenme on training and raising awareness of the rights of the disabled in Turkmenistan.

In the last half of the year forced demolitions of house extensions and the removal of air conditioners and satellites continued, and many homes overlooking certain “protocol roads” (i.e. those used frequently by the President) were instructed to black out street facing windows. In December, one of the longest established and most popular supermarkets and shopping centres was forcibly closed with 2 weeks’ notice, leaving many hundreds of workers without jobs or shops without compensation. These measures have been enforced without notice or consultation with those affected.