WORLD REPORT 1997 - Turkmenistan

Human Rights Developments

The autocratic rule of President Saparmurad Niyazov insured that 1996 was another year of relentless oppression of almost all civil and political rights in Turkmenistan. The media were tightly controlled, slavishly praising the president and his policies; there were no public rallies; there was no political opposition within the country; and political dissidents were arrested or committed to psychiatric hospitals against their will, making Turkmenistan the only Soviet successor state known to continue this barbaric practice. The high degree of repression kept information about abuses minimal again in 1996, which limited international criticism of specific abusive acts and helped the government to operate in an atmosphere of impunity.

It is indicative that the only public shows of dissent in 1996 took place in prison. According to the Kazakstan newspaper Karavan-blitz (Almaty) of February 15, fourteen death-row inmates in an unidentified Turkmenistan prison reportedly took guards hostage to secure their right to judicial review of their sentence (granted automatically under international law). The result of the reviews was not known, but, according to the article, President Niyazov later declared that all death sentences should be reviewed. In August, prisoners in the city of Mary rioted to protest appalling prison conditions, particularly acute in the blistering August heat of this desert country; this was the second such riot in a year. According to government sources, one inmate committed suicide, two were killed, and seven were injured. In the wake of the uprising, President Niyazov fired senior prison officials but took no known steps to improve conditions.

Turkmenistan=s population continued to reel from the crackdown against the public rally of July 12, 1995, which called for new parliamentary elections and was the first public act of dissent in the country since the early 1990s. Police dispersed the peaceful demonstrators and arrested scores of participants. On December 26, 1995, reportedly twenty-seven individuals arrested at the rally were sentenced in secret trials. Two journalists among them, Yovshan Annakurban and Mukhamad Muradly, were each sentenced to three years of imprisonment for Amalicious breach of the peace.@ On January 11, 1996, presidential edict No. 1717 granted twenty of those men clemency and exonerated them. There is no confirmation of charges against or sentences of the remaining demonstrators; the arrest of Charymurad Amandurdiev, who had escaped arrest until February 1996, raised the number to eight in 1996.

One of the few political dissidents remaining in Turkmenistan, Durdy Murad Khodzha-Mukhammedov, co-chairman of the banned Party of Democratic Development of Turkmenistan, reportedly was committed to a psychiatric hospital in Goek-Teppe on February 23 without medical necessity. He had been similarly confined once before, in 1994, but reasons for his release then, or for his current confinement now, were unclear. Two other dissidents (Rufina Arabova and a fellow member of Khodzha-Mukhammedov=s party Valentin Kopysev) were also believed to be held in psychiatric hospitals for political reasons.

The Right to Monitor

Intense and pervasive government repression precluded the functioning of any indigenous human rights monitors in Turkmenistan in 1996. A delegation from Human Rights Watch/Helsinki was granted high-level government meetings in June, during which it was given assurances of permission to conduct field investigations in the future. Fearing possible government reprisals against local residents, the delegation deliberately avoided meeting with victims or other independent sources of information during its stay.

Because of the complete repression of dissent, there was no reason to believe that the newly created parliamentary Institute of Human Rights and the Democratization of Society and the State (established on December 27, 1995) would be permitted to function as anything but a government show piece.

The Role of the International Community

The international community did not break from its inexplicable silence on human rights abuse in Turkmenistan in 1996, at best limiting expression of its concern to closed-door meetings. As a result, the government was not forced to make any improvements as concessions to outside pressureCthe only pressure possible in this repressive state. Typical of the passive attitude was the statement made by a World Bank representative to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki during a March meeting that the bank took no action on Turkmenistan=s well-known human rights abuses precisely because they were so bad.

The United States

Except for its excellent Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1995, the U.S. government is not known to have made any public condemnations of Turkmenistan=s entrenched human rights practices. On September 14-16, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Coffey traveled to Ashgabat to communicate concerns privately and to demand responses to specific cases of illegal arrest and detention. There was no known response as of this writing.