Turkmenistan is a signatory to most international human rights instruments and its national legislation and constitution contain provisions for the protection of those rights. In 2012, we continued to have significant human rights concerns in Turkmenistan. There is a broad gap between the government’s rhetoric on democracy and human rights and its practice.
This was underlined when Turkmenistan appeared before the UN Human Rights Committee in March. The HRC noted that, while Turkmenistan had shown willingness to improve its human rights record, there was a broad gap between the country’s legislation and its implementation, including in relation to the prohibition of torture, degrading treatment, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. More generally, the media continues to be tightly controlled and Internet access limited. Corruption and lack of transparency are serious problems. Turkmenistan also has yet to make significant progress towards a pluralistic political system. Nevertheless, there were some modest positive developments in certain areas in 2012. These included further, albeit limited, access to a detention facility by an independent international organisation; Turkmenistan hosting a significant international media conference for the first time; the return to the market of an independent mobile phone and Internet operator; the establishment of official human rights resource centres in each of the country’s five regions; and the release of a small number individuals whose cases had been raised by the UK and others.
Our objectives for 2012 were to use high-level engagement and other opportunities to encourage progress on human rights. As anticipated in the last report, the Turkmen authorities maintained a policy of committing to reforms but taking only incremental steps in putting those commitments into practice. We were able to work with the Turkmen authorities in some areas such as media reform, the rule of law, and transparency and openness.
In 2013, the UK will continue to use high-level engagement to encourage Turkmenistan to do more to meet its international human rights obligations. We will also work with key international partners – particularly the EU and OSCE – to encourage reform. We will support action to hold the next round of the EU/Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue as soon as possible. We will also participate fully as Turkmenistan undergoes its next Universal Periodic Review in April/May 2013. Overall, however, we judge that Turkmenistan’s concerns about security and stability, allied to an inherently cautious approach to change, mean that the prospects for substantive reform in the short to medium term are limited.
The main event of the year was the presidential election on 12 February. A pre-election assessment by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) concluded that the electoral process would not meet international standards. It referred in particular to concerns about ongoing restrictions on fundamental freedoms, the limited choice between competing political alternatives, and the need to bring Turkmenistan’s legal framework into line with OSCE commitments for democratic elections. In the circumstances, ODIHR did not deploy an observer mission. On the day, President Berdimuhamedov was re-elected with over 97% of the vote from a reported turnout of over 96%. The EU expressed concern about the conduct of the election.
President Berdimuhamedov signed a new law on political parties in January. This was too late for it to have an impact on the presidential election, but it has potentially opened the door to a different political landscape in Turkmenistan. Parliamentary elections at the end of 2013 will reveal the extent to which these changes represent meaningful reform. We will continue to encourage the Turkmen authorities to move towards a democratic system.
Freedom of expression and assembly
Turkmenistan was ranked 196 out of 197 countries in the latest Freedom of the Press Index published by US-based NGO, Freedom House. It remains impossible to buy international newspapers or any other foreign written media in Turkmenistan. Internet access remains under-developed and strictly controlled. The Turkmen government continues to block social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter. On a more positive note, the independent Russian mobile phone and Internet operator MTS, whose operation in Turkmenistan was suspended in December 2010, returned to the market on 30 August. Satellite dishes capable of receiving Russian, Turkish and other international news and entertainment channels remain readily available.
The BBC World Service Trust/Media Action has been working to build capacity within Turkmenistan to engage with the international media and improve access to information for foreign journalists, including facilitating a successful application by Turkmenistan for membership of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union. We supported a visit to London in March by a delegation of Turkmen media representatives to meet the BBC, the Press Complaints Commission, Ofcom and the National Union of Journalists. The UK also contributed funds for the 14th Central Asian Media Conference in Ashgabat on 5–6 July, managed by the OSCE. This was the first time that Turkmenistan had agreed to host the event.
Turkmenistan finally adopted a new media law on 22 December. The BBC World Trust and OSCE were among those who provided advice during the drafting stages. At the time of writing, we and other international observers are looking to assess the law and its impact on the media environment in Turkmenistan.
In spite of the existence of relevant legal provisions, the authorities do not allow citizens to exercise the right to assembly.
Human rights defenders
The EU, UN Development Programme and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights have been working to increase understanding in Turkmenistan about international human rights standards and mechanisms. One outcome has been that official Human Rights Resource Centres are now operating in each of Turkmenistan’s five regions. These centres represent a modest but important means to raise awareness about human rights in Turkmenistan.
But independent human rights defenders such as the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights are unable to operate and the registration process for independent NGOs is complex, bureaucratic and effectively subject to arbitrary assessment by the state. The authorities have also sought in the past to prevent Turkmen human rights defenders from attending international human rights and civil society meetings held outside Turkmenistan. Unregistered NGO activity is punishable by fines, short-term detention and confiscation of property. Civil society organisations have little awareness of human rights work or ability to reach a wider audience. The UK was pleased therefore to work jointly with the OSCE Centre in Ashgabat on a seminar in March to enhance participants’ skills and knowledge about project preparation and management.
Access to justice and the rule of law
Corruption and general lack of transparency remains a significant problem in Turkmenistan. Transparency International ranked Turkmenistan 170 out of 176 states surveyed in its Corruption Perceptions Index published on 5 December.
It remains difficult for individuals to challenge court decisions. We have yet to see evidence of an improvement in sentencing and prison conditions.
There have been some positive developments on individual cases of concern. Ilmurad Nurliev, a Pentecostal pastor who was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in October 2010, ostensibly for fraud, but whose conviction a number of NGOs believe was connected to his involvement in an unregistered religious organisation, received a presidential pardon on 16 February. Bisengul Begdesenov also received presidential pardon on 16 February. Mr Begdesenov had been given a suspended sentence of nine years in May 2011 for fraudulent activities but, again, reliable NGO reporting suggests the real reason may have been official concern about his (unsuccessful) attempt to register an ethnic Kazakh cultural centre in Ashgabat. In a separate development, Owezgeldi Atayew and his wife, who were accused of engineering a suicide attempt by their daughter-in-law and were sentenced in February 2007 to five years in prison, have been released. Under the constitution of Turkmenistan, Mr Atayew was set to become the country’s interim leader in 2006 following the death of President Niyazov and pending the selection of a new President. Their release was confirmed by the Turkmen delegation during the UN Human Rights Committee meeting in New York in March.
Our Embassy in Ashgabat arranged a visit to Turkmenistan in March by experts on the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The purpose of the visit was to build on the first ever seminar on EITI in Turkmenistan in September 2011 by deepening understanding in the Turkmen government about the initiative, which provides a global standard for the transparent management of revenues from natural resources, its principles and its benefits. We will look for further opportunities in 2013 to encourage and develop cooperation in this area. We will also continue to raise with the Turkmen authorities the importance of the rule of law, including lobbying on individual cases where appropriate.
Turkmenistan co-sponsored the draft resolution on a “Moratorium on the use of the Death Penalty” during the 67th session of the UN General Assembly in New York. The UK welcomes this, as their co-sponsorship helps to ensure wide cross-regional support for the resolution. Turkmenistan abolished the death penalty in 1999.
Turkmenistan’s parliament passed a number of legislative changes on 4 August, including an amendment to the Criminal Code that brings the definition of torture in Turkmen law into line with Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture. But it will remain difficult to make a fully accurate assessment of the treatment of prisoners and other detainees until international bodies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are allowed full and unfettered access to detention facilities in Turkmenistan. A UN report in June 2011 raised concerns about reports of widespread torture in places of detention and stressed the need for substantive progress in Turkmenistan’s prison system. Security officials are believed to use excessive force, including beating, when intent on extracting confessions from detainees. We are encouraged, however, by the fact that Turkmenistan granted access by an ICRC delegation to a juvenile correctional facility in Mary in April, building on a similar visit to the medical unit of another detention facility in 2011.
Prison conditions are unsanitary, overcrowded and unsafe. Some facilities are located in areas of extremely harsh climate conditions, with excessive heat in the summers and freezing temperatures in the winter. The nutritional value of prison food is poor. The Turkmen government has, however, declared its intention to modernise existing penitentiary facilities and build new ones according to international standards. In June, it adopted a juvenile justice programme for children under 18, developed in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF, which seeks to align Turkmenistan’s legislation, policies and practice with international norms on juvenile justice, rights and freedoms. Overall, however, much more progress needs to be made on all of these issues. The UK will continue to encourage the Turkmen authorities to allow full and independent access to detention facilities and individual prisoners, including by UN Special Rapporteurs.
Freedom of religion or belief
We remain concerned about religious freedom in Turkmenistan. Religion is largely government-controlled and any religious organisation wishing to operate in the country is required to register with the authorities. Obtaining registration is not easy because of bureaucratic and other hurdles, and those organisations that have registered can find it difficult to operate due to government constraints on opening new premises and size of services. The law prohibits proselytising. It also prohibits the publication of religious literature. The importation of any religious publication has to be approved by the Council of Religious Affairs and it remains hard to obtain permission. Individuals and religious communities still experience administrative restrictions or various other forms of harassment.
A Turkmen citizen, Vladimir Nuryllaev, was convicted on 18 January to four years’ imprisonment, ostensibly for distributing pornographic material but international human rights NGOs asserted that his conviction flowed directly from his status as a Jehovah’s Witness. EU Heads of Mission raised their concern about this case in February. Vladimir Nuryllaev was released as part of a broader presidential amnesty on 17 May.
We have been concerned about further reports during the year of harassment and some cases of detention affecting certain other religious communities such as Protestants in Turkmenistan’s Lebap region. As a result, the British Embassy (as local EU Presidency) and EU partners in Ashgabat raised the issue with the Turkmen authorities, underlining the need to respect fundamental and universal values of freedom of thought, conscience and belief, and the importance of Turkmenistan abiding by its international commitments and obligations.
Although Turkmenistan’s legal framework provides for equal rights and freedoms for all citizens, national minority groups within the country (particularly ethnic Uzbeks and Russians) find it difficult to preserve their national and linguistic identity and exercise freedom of travel as a result of legal and other pressures designed to reinforce Turkmenistan’s national identity (for example legislation that obliges dual nationals to choose either Turkmen or Russian citizenship). Citizens belonging to ethnic minorities are mostly excluded from government jobs even if they speak Turkmen. A presidential decree requires that at least 70% of the personnel employed by an organisation have to be Turkmen. The state is by far the major employer in Turkmenistan.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights
Male homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment (from 2 to 20 years). Female homosexuality is not mentioned in the Criminal Code. Although provisions concerning homosexuality are rarely applied, homophobia is widespread and homosexuals hide their sexual orientation to avoid discrimination.