A New Era for Turkmenistan?

The recent death of Turkmenistan’s president, Saparmurat Niyazov, leaves the country with an uncertain future. Acting President Berdymukhammedov has stepped into the president’s spot without apparent political disruption, and early indications suggest few changes from the repressive policies of the old regime.

According to the Open Society Institute, one of Berdymukhammedov’s first actions was to arrest the speaker of parliament, Ovezgeldy Atayev, who, according to the constitution, should have been Niyazov’s successor. Atayev was then criminally charged, effectively taking him out of the running for president. Also, Nurberdy Numammedov, the last political opposition figure living in Turkmenistan, was abducted and beaten after his nomination as an opposition presidential candidate. He has not been seen since his abduction.

The existing government has pledged to follow in Niyazov’s steps after next month’s presidential election. This is a frightening prospect for human rights activists and anyone concerned about the fate of prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan.

Serious Human Rights Violations

With one of the worst human rights records in the world, President Niyazov and his government led a bureaucracy rampant with corruption, opaque in virtually all its dealings, and authoritarian in the extreme. According to Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Index, Turkmenistan ranked 150th out of a total of 163 countries evaluated for corruption. Freedom House identified Turkmenistan as a “not free” country, citing restrictions on personal freedoms, the executive branch’s virtual total control of the government, the outlawing of political opposition parties, and other restrictions.

As president, Niyazov destroyed the country’s medical system, replacing medical personnel outside of the capital city, Ashgabat, with conscripted military workers. His government outlawed long hair and beards for men, and made the Rukhama, a “spiritual” text allegedly written by Niyazov, required reading in all schools. He also made illegal any use of the Internet not provided through the official Turkmenistan telecommunications company, severely limiting Turkmen citizens’ access to international news and media.

Western journalists wrote many bemused stories about Niyazov’s cult of personality, his decrees outlawing opera, and his construction of golden statues of himself that turned with the sun. Meanwhile, civil society activists, environmentalists, and human rights activists were disappearing into Turkmenistan’s prison system. Many of them have yet to emerge, and those who have, lead lives in exile. Those who died in custody were buried by their families.

Recent Human Rights Abuses

In 2006, the Turkmen authorities detained several civil society activists and journalists, holding them without charges and without access to legal counsel. In May 2006, the Turkmen government detained Olgusapar Muradova, a journalist working for Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty. The 56-year-old mother of three was falsely charged with weapons possession and taken into custody in June 2006. When her children refused to turn over her computer and documents, they were also imprisoned for several weeks. She died in custody in mid-September. Although the authorities claimed she died of a heart condition, her family went to the Ashgabat morgue and discovered that her body was covered with bruises and showed signs of head trauma and possible strangulation.

Other prisoners of conscience continue to languish in Turkmenistan’s prison system, including Amankurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who were both arrested in June 2006 and are associated with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, a Bulgaria-based human rights group. They are serving seven-year sentences on trumped up charges. Additionally, Mukhmatkuli Aimuradov, a political prisoner since 1994, is serving an 18-year sentence on trumped-up charges of plotting to assassinate Niyazov.

Most recently, on December 17, 2006, renowned environmentalist Andrey Zatoka was detained as he attempted to board a flight from his hometown of Tashauz to Ashgabat and then on to Moscow. An apolitical environmentalist who worked in Turkmenistan’s nature reserve system as a herpetologist, Zatoka founded the first children’s environmental education club in the country and was active in many eco-groups, including the International Socio-Ecological Union of which he is a founding member. Just prior to his detention, Zatoka was planning to participate in an international environmental conference and then spend the New Years holiday with his family. Since then, he has been held with no access to a lawyer or his family and friends.

In late December 2006, the Tashauz branch of the National Security Ministry searched Zatoka’s home and confiscated his computer and other technical equipment, according to Amnesty International. The authorities then charged Zatoka with two counts of criminal activity: illegal possession of firearms and illegal possession of a dangerous substance. If found guilty, he could serve a maximum of five years and three years in prison for each charge, respectively.

The International Context

In recent years, the United States and other western governments have made some attempts to encourage Turkmenistan to improve its human rights record. As a result, Turkmenistan removed its requirement that citizens obtain an exit visa to leave the country. However, civil liberties remain virtually non-existent, and citizens of the country are extremely isolated from the rest of the world.

Turkmenistan’s dependency on foreign markets for the export of its substantial energy resources can serve as a point of leverage. Turkmenistan has significant natural gas reserves and is the number two exporter of gas in the former Soviet Union (behind Russia). Dependent on Russia’s pipeline systems for export, Turkmenistan has been inconsistent in its negotiations with the West on planned pipeline construction via the Caspian Sea (and effectively bypassing Russia and Iran). The United States and European Union, which are interested in obtaining more Turkmen gas—and which could be valuable trading partners for Turkmenistan by enabling it to become more economically independent from Russia—should link economic development with human rights improvements in the country.

With the upcoming presidential elections in Turkmenistan in February, the United States and the European Union should urge the Turkmen government to include Turkmen opposition candidates on the ballot and guarantee their safe return to Turkmenistan to participate in the elections. An election with only the existing candidates—all of whom have been “approved” by the interim government—will fail to meet the standard of free and fair elections.

Western governments should also insist that Turkmenistan free its prisoners of conscience—including Andrey Zatoka—immediately and unconditionally, demonstrating that democratic governments will not do business with countries abusing the human and civil rights of their citizens.

Kate Watters is Executive Director of Crude Accountability, a nonprofit organization working with local activists in the Caspian basin on environmental justice issues related to oil and gas extraction.