This election year, Americans are reminded and fatigued at how the campaign season drives rifts between various groups in the country. Wouldn’t you love instead to live in a nation where the President is so universally beloved, he is elected with a 97 percent majority? How about a country that celebrates an annual “Week of Happiness” to foster good health and high spirits? So would the people of Turkmenistan, whose government boasts these “facts.”
Yet, Turkmenistan remains one of the most closed and repressive regimes in the world. This is despite government policies intended to demonstrate the democratic liberalization and harmony to be found in Turkmenistan—such as the creation of two new political parties and the official “Week of Health and Happiness,” which essentially orders people to be happy and climb stairs.
And many of Turkmenistan’s journalists marked World Press Freedom Day on May 3 from prison. Turkmenistan was recently ranked 177 out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index. Because of the complete lack of a free press, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Turkmenistan as a “runner-up” on its list of the 10 Most Censored Countries. Turkmenistan under President Berdymukhamedov and his predecessor, “President-for-Life” Niyazov, has a long and sordid history of repressive policies abusing human rights and the right to free expression.
A case in point is the disturbing story of the independent Turkmen journalists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadzhiev—nearly forgotten, by government design. In June 2006, officials from the Ministry of National Security arrested Annakurban and Sapardurdy while they were at work on a French documentary film about the health-care system in Turkmenistan. One night, they simply did not come home. Turkmenistan’s then-President, Saparmurat Niyazov, and his Minister of National Security publicly accused the journalists of “conspiring with foreigners to destabilize the state.”
The journalists languished in jail for nearly a month before they were formally charged with any crime. Eleven men were crammed into an eight-by-eight-foot room and left to suffer nearly 120-degree heat and unbearable thirst. In August 2006, Annakurban and Sapardurdy were tried and convicted for “possession of illegal munitions” in a brief, closed-door proceeding in which they were prohibited from calling witnesses on their behalf. Their families and other members of the public were forcibly barred from the courtroom. The international community widely condemned both the charges and the trial and accused the government of trying to punish and silence Annakurban and Sapardurdy. On November 2, 2010, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released its opinion that Turkmenistan’s arrest and continued detention of Annakurban and Sapardurdy is arbitrary and violates international law, calling on the Turkmenistan government to release the two human rights advocates. But the outcry has waned, and Turkmenistan hasn’t blinked.
Annakurban and Sapardurdy are currently serving their seven-year sentences of imprisonment and hard labor. Subjected to torture, forced psychotropic drugs injections, and horrendous conditions, limited eyewitness accounts report that the journalists’ health has seriously deteriorated. Sapardurdy’s sister, Ogulsapar Murdova (also a journalist), who was arrested and convicted with them, died in custody in September 2006—her body marked with signs of torture.
In connection with the formation of new political parties in Turkmenistan, a representative of the government stated that “the creation of a multi-party system in Turkmenistan corresponds with our aims to democratize society and undertake major social reforms.” If Turkmenistan is serious about living up to this pledge, the leadership must release Annakurban and Sapardurdy to send the signal to the international community that Turkmenistan does more than merely talk about the virtues of reform.
And it is time the international community demanded more of this country whose government is well on its way toward the creation of North Korea Part II. Annakurban and Sapardurdy are not so different from us. They were exercising their basic freedoms of expression when arrested. The Turkmenistan government needs to know people are watching, despite its efforts to divert attention to its tourist resorts with spiraling fountains.
Turkmenistan has a history of granting amnesty to prisoners on national holidays. In honor of its Day of Revival, Unity, and the Poetry of Magtymguly on May 18-19, the country released over 1,000 prisoners. Noticeably absent from this group, however, were prisoners of conscience Annakurban and Sapardurdy. In light of this missed opportunity, President Berdymuhamedov should seize the moment to send a positive message of reform to the citizens of Turkmenistan and the international community by releasing Annakurban and Sapardurdy now.
Maran Turner is the Executive Director of Freedom Now, an international organization that helps free prisoners of conscience and represents Messrs. Amanklychev and Khadzhiev. Craig Lewis, a partner at Hogan Lovells, is assisting Freedom Now as pro bono counsel.