asiaNet Human Rights
The probable cause of Nurmamedov's arrest was his criticism of the decision to make Saparmurad Niyazov president for life. In comments recently broadcast by Radio Liberty, Nurmamedov also expressed dissenting views on various government policies. He is reportedly ill and on hunger strike at the police holding center in Tigen, a two or three hour drive from the capital. It is not known whether he has been allowed to see legal counsel, but that would be an almost unthinkable luxury for a dissident in Turkmenistan. Generally, political prisoners have tended to be held incommunicado, subjected to threats of harm to themselves and their relatives, coercion to confess, beatings, and sometimes torture.
Like many dissidents around the world, Nurberdi Nurmamedov came from an ideological background not unlike that of the political leader whose policies he would later criticize and at whose hands he would suffer reprisals. Nurmamedov, a mechanical engineer, was a member of the Communist Party since 1982; Niyazov was the head of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR. Their paths continued in parallel when, in 1989, Nurmamedov and others formed the independent Agzybirlik (Unity) Popular Movement. Both embraced the platform of independence of the Turkmen SSR from the Soviet Union.
But Niyazov parlayed that platform into the independent country's first presidency; Nurmamedov was expelled from the Communist Party and lost his job, and all subsequent job prospects. The government-controlled media smeared him and his colleagues as enemies of the state. For more than a decade, Mr. Nurmamedov has endured persecution, including house arrest, professional blacklisting, and intense surveillance.
The US government so far has not commented on Nurmamedov's arrest. Given Turkmenistan's well-established pattern of harassment and severe reprisals for peaceful dissidents, the US government's silence ought to be justified, or ended promptly. The US owes that much to Mr. Nurmamedov personally, who has continually suffered harassment because of his contact with US diplomats.
In 1992, he and others on a list of invitees were locked in their houses under guard during a state visit by then Secretary of State James Baker. Only last month, the embassy called on Mr. Nurmamedov again to appear at a function honoring Congressional human rights representatives, in part to demonstrate that civil society still existed in that country. (It would be difficult to fill an average-sized living room with similarly minded people.)
The US had also tacitly promoted another peaceful political reformer, Pirimkuli Tangrykuliev, who was attempting to create an alternative to the only existing party. The US government failed to demand his release when he, too, was taken into custody by the authorities this summer.
If the US government endorses Mr. Nurmamedov's bravery, it must also protect it. In the short term, the State Department and the Congress should issue a prompt public condemnation in the arrest. The US Embassy in Ashgabat should demand a personal meeting with him, and regular access to him thereafter. The US should feel an obligation to monitor whether Nurmamedov is being accorded his due process rights, and be willing to protest publicly when he is not.
The arrest also calls into question US policy towards Turkmenistan. In particular, the US government should reevaluate its steady financial assistance to Niyazov's regime. One option would be to suspend Ex-Im loans and other non-humanitarian assistance until measurable, sustainable human rights reforms are introduced. Support of civil society and abandonment of its agents are incompatible.
Erika Dailey is an editorial consultant
to the Central Eurasia Project, covering human rights-related
issues in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Between 1992
and 1998, Ms. Dailey worked as a researcher and human rights
advocate for Human Rights Watch, based in New York and Moscow,
covering principally the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Russian
Federation. Since 1998, Dailey has worked as a human rights
advocate for Human Rights Watch, the International League
for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
She has a BA in Slavic Studies from Princeton (1986) and an
MA in Central Asian Studies from Columbia (1991). She has
lived in and traveled to the Caucasus and Central Asia regularly