Turkmenistan Opens Geneva Mission, Prepares for UN Review on Torture
Turkmenistan is opening up a mission to the UN in Geneva, the semi-official news agency turkmenistan.ru reported, citing a report from Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov at a recent meeting of the cabinet of ministers. A decree signed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov authorized the mission in Geneva for Turkmenistan, which previously lacked a presence there.
No doubt the reinforcement of the diplomatic corps is related to preparation for some tough questioning anticipated from a UN treaty body, the Committee Against Torture (CAT). In May, Turkmenistan is scheduled to present its report on compliance with the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The CAT is made up of 10 independent experts from around the world who will ask a number of questions of the Turkmen government about numerous allegations of the use of torture in its prisons and other facilities of confinement. As this is Turkmenistan's first report to the CAT, the experts did not adopt and release in advance a list of issues usually presented to the state party to answer in addition to their own report.
The CAT will convene May 9-June 3 and is expected to examine Turkmenistan May 18-19. The experts are likely to hear testimony from NGOs with information about Turkmenistan before the session.
Turkmenistan's report was completed in 2009 but only recently translated from Russian and published on the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The state report is filled with propagandistic statements, such as the claim that in Turkmenistan "the human being is the paramount value of society and the State" and the government "is responsible to every citizen, ensures conditions permitting the free development of the individual and protects the life, honour, dignity, liberty, individual inviolability and natural and inalienable rights of citizens."
The Turkmen government employs the trick used by other authoritarian states, reciting long declarations of various laws in numbing detail, some of them recently approved by the rubber-stamp parliament just for this occasion, but never discussing actual practices. A key means for the CAT members to penetrate this wall of self-justification is to ask for information about specific prisoners' cases and actual trials of officials prosecuted for torture. The experts are also expected to make use of reports from the review of Turkmenistan under another procedure in 2008 at the UN Human Rights Council, the Universal Periodic Review, in which other countries made recommendations to Ashgabat that it outright rejected or did not follow.
Non-governmental human rights groups are harshly discouraged and activists persecuted, jailed or forced to leave the country, so it is difficult to challenge Ashgabat's claims. Nevertheless, a network of international and exiled activists who have been maintaining the record for years will also present their findings to the UN body. A critical report with rare information from inside the country, "Turkmenistan's Penitentiary System," was issued in February 2010 by the Turkmen Independent Lawyers Association and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, both groups whose leaders were forced into exile and are registered in the Netherlands and Austria, respectively.
The 20-page study describes the lack of due process involved in incarcerating numerous people for violation of arbitrary rules established by the authoritarian state. "Despite the reforms proclaimed by the present-day authorities, Turkmenistan remains one of the most closed countries in the world," says the report, noting the difficulties involved in trying to gather unbiased information and the risks people have nevertheless taken in describing their relatives' fates. The NGOs say the crime rate is high in Turkmenistan due to massive unemployment and insufficient facilities for youth education. While President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has announced significant reform and investment in the educational and medical systems of Turkmenistan, at meetings of the national security council he has also expressed alarm at rampant drug abuse among youth, particularly in the army. Turkmenistan borders on Afghanistan, and narcotics smuggling continues to be a problem.
Among the most glaring abuses of the Turkmen prison system is the disappearance of a number of people into it who have not been heard from in years and who may no longer be alive. These include former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, tried with others in an alleged coup plot in 2002, and kept incommunicado since then, and two members of the Turkmenistasn Helsinki Foundation, Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who were charged with helping French documentary film makers. They also include Ovezgeldy Ataev, the head of the nominal legislature at the time of Berdymukhamedov's succession, who was designated successor at interim president under the constitution, but who was charged with allegedly driving his stepson's fiancée to attempted suicide, and reportedly sentenced in 2007 to 4 or 5 years in prison, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Turkmen NGOs have found evidence of the use of torture to extract confessions and ensure conformity and a widespread practice of taking family members as hostages to induce cooperation from suspects. A typical case is that of Tirkesh Aymuradov, a former police officer from the city of Turkmenbashi, was arrested not for any crime, but because his relative, a former defense attorney, Kulieva, whose first name is not known, was charged for continuing to defend her clients in Balkan despite pressures brought on her by officials. Aymuradov's own attorney said he had witnessed his client's injuries: almost all of his teeth were knocked out, and he had a large number of scratch marks and bruises on his face and body, as well as cigarette burns. The prison wardens claimed that his teeth were missing because crowns are not allowing in prison and the other injuries were explained away as Aymuradov's own fault, as he was supposedly "stubborn" and "provoked arguments" with his fellow inmates.
Recently, Farid Tuhbatullin, head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, provided testimony to an NGO human rights meeting called the Geneva Summit, and he and his colleagues are expected to provide an alternative report to the CAT.