Last week, the 16th session of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UN Human Rights Council completed its review of Turkmenistan's human rights record and issued a final report with recommendations focusing on human rights and the rule of law. The Director of Turkmenistan’s National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, Yazdursun Kurbannazarova, in her response to the report, said that Turkmenistan will not be considering some of the recommendations at all. " Out of the 183 recommendations we do not agree with only eight,” Kurbannazarova said, objecting to the recommendation regarding political prisoners, claiming, “we do not have any.” She also took issue with the recommendation to decriminalize sexual relations between consenting adults of the same sex, saying that “such behavior goes against the mentality and the culture of the Turkmen society.”
However, according to the watchdog group Human Rights Watch (HRW), an unknown number of individuals continue to languish in Turkmen prisons on what appear to be politically motivated charges. In an environment in which the justice system lacks transparency, politically-motivated trials are held behind closed doors, and the overall level of repression precludes any independent human rights monitoring, it is impossible to get precise numbers – a situation compounded by the Turkmen governments repeated denial of access to the country for independent human rights monitors, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, NGOs, and 10 UN special procedures whose requests for visits have not been answered, according to HRW in its World Report 2012. Approximately 50 prisoners convicted in connection with the November 2002 alleged assassination attempt on past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov—including former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov and Turkmenistan’s former ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Batyr Berdiev—remain the victims of enforced disappearances. Their fate is unknown, and their whereabouts are not disclosed even to their families. HRW is aware of unconfirmed reports that several defendants in the 2002 plot case have died in detention.
As for the country’s position on homosexuality, the country has preserved laws criminalizing homosexuality that are a legacy of the Soviet era, but which most countries of the Former Soviet Union have since dropped, with the exception of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In an appearance before the UN Human Rights Committee in New York, in March 2012, the Turkmen official delegation asserted that homosexuality was a punishable crime under their legislation and Turkmenistan was not a signatory to any treaty or agreement to legalize homosexuality.
This week also saw the celebration of the Day of the Turkmen Horse, marked by a high profile event culminating in a series of horse races drawing numerous foreign guests, many of whom were attached to foreign companies and governments courting Turkmenistan for business opportunities. Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov himself participated in the races, and, according to local reports, won, riding Berkarar (or “Mighty”), a horse of the rare and indigenous Akhal Teke breed, renowned for speed and endurance. This kind of demonstration and display by the president is in line with the cult of personality he has been promoting, singing and playing the guitar at public celebrations, as well as competing at the racetrack – both in racecars and on horseback.
However, what was not reported locally, and only surfaced later on the internet in a video that was posted on the eurasianet.org website, as well as broadcast on a Turkish TV channel, was that the president fell off the horse before thousands of both local and foreign spectators. The footage shows Berdymukhamedov taking a lead in the race throughout and winning by nearly a length and a half. But immediately after completing the one-kilometer course, he appears to shift in his saddle, and the horse stumbles. The Turkmen leader then went hurtling over the mount’s shoulders, landing face first on the track, rolling over onto his back and laying still as other horses galloped by, narrowly missing trampling him.
The video then shows ministers and security officials in black suits running out onto the track as the crowd realizes the gravity of the situation, with the spectacle of the motionless Berdymukhamedov, who apparently was briefly knocked unconscious and haphazardly lifted in a manner that could have left him paralyzed if his spine had been injured, eurasianet.org reported. For approximately an hour it was not clear if Berdymukhamedov was alive or dead, while spectators were forced to remain seated. Security forces fanned out into the crowd and forced attendees with cameras inside the stadium where doors were locked and anyone with video or photos of the fall was compelled to delete them. University-age volunteers also kept an eye on attendees in an attempt to prevent anyone from hiding camera memory cards, reported eurasianet.org. According to sources from the opposition website gundogar.org, Ashgabat International Airport stepped up its security measures, with customs officials, police, and security officers on the lookout for overseas travelers carrying footage of the president’s fall, confiscating phones, cameras, computers, and other devices that might contain photo or video evidence of the episode. Gundogar.org also cites an anonymous source from the Interior Ministry who claims that several dozen people have already been arrested for attempting to take the “forbidden materials” out of the country.
After some order was restored, Berdymukhamedov made a brief camera appearance in which he seemed to be moving stiffly, waving to a cheering crowd. At the close of the races, he presented winners with awards, and delivered a speech that seemed slurred, possibly as a result of strong pain killers, according to eurasianet.org.
Reporting on the race in the tightly controlled state press differed substantially from what can be seen in the video. Eurasianet.org reports that an account of the race published by Neitralniy Turkmenistan, the government’s Russian-language daily, “turned the race into a photo finish, with Berdymukhamedov’s skill as a jockey determining the outcome.”
The entire episode, the stifling of the version of events captured on video, and the version manufactured by the domestic press, only seemed to provide an all-too-vivid illustration of the recent ranking of Turkmenistan by the press-freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders, in its annual World Press Index, as one of the three most un-free states, leaving only North Korea and Eritrea behind.