Turkmenistan: Religious Believers Languish in Desert Prison
The photos above were taken in 2007 by human rights defenders who cannot give their names for safety reasons. Google Earth also provides a satellite view. The middle rectangle on the north-western diagonal is the general-regimen camp, where the prisoners of conscience are being held. The upright rectangle on the western side is the strict-regimen camp. The main gate of the camp is on the lower long side, with the road leading down to the southeast.
Imurad Nurliev, the pastor for Light of the World, a Protestant congregation in the town of Mary, is one of the prisoners in Seydi. Pastor Nurliev was sentenced to four years of imprisonment on October 21, 2010 for allegedly swindling funds from four of his parishioners who had visited a shelter run by the church in 2010. All four alleged that Pastor Nurliev forced them to pay a contribution to the congregation, which a trial court ruled as swindling.
Yet as the human rights organizations have reported, one of the alleged victims was in prison for much of the time the alleged swindling was said to have taken place. And in May 2010, the congregants of Light of the World Church were summoned to the Mary city police department, where they were threatened with further harassment, in the presence of police and Ministry of National Security officers, if they did not give evidence against Pastor Nurliev.
Forum 18 reports that ten other religious prisoners are serving sentences for refusal to perform compulsory military service. They are all Jehovah's Witnesses.
The total number of prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan isn't known, because it's so difficult to report on human rights there. There are known cases of journalists and civic advocates imprisoned for their work, so there are likely at least several dozen such persons in the penetentiary system. Then there are political prisoners who are opponents of the current government, or former officials, who have been jailed on various corruption charges -- the charges may actually be accurate, but they've been selectively and unjustly prosecuted without adequate defense. There are many others who are in jail just for the failure of due process -- many of them are drug offenders.
The ease with which President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, even in a dictatorship, releases 2000-3000 prisoners on the occasion of each state holiday lets us know that the state doesn't likely have a good case against some people but just likes to use "prophylactic" treatment on suspects.
It would seem the first concern in Turkmenistan would be to get out of jail all those prisoners of conscience, political prisoners and other victims of the unfair justice system.
But that problem can't be tackled head on, so instead we have a softer option from the Organization of Security for Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): a seminar for Turkmen officials about how to train prison personnel and help former prisoners adapt to life after their release.
This is certainly a good thing, in that it gives OSCE a way to relate to the harsh prison system and secretive Interior Ministry of Turkmenistan that might eventually lead to better treatment. Says Begoña Piñeiro Costas, the OSCE Centre’s Human Dimension Officer:
Prison officials must be at the forefront of protecting human rights of individuals who are deprived of their liberty. Pre-service and regular in-service training offered by prison staff training centres provides much needed guidance to officials working in penitentiary institutions and helps them advance their knowledge and professional skills, thus enabling them to better fulfil their important public duties.
Yet there's a danger with this sort of program that it leads to creating a virtual world that is removed from the actual deliberate torture and mistreatment practiced in the prison system, and doesn't help the people who shouldn't even be in prison in the first place.
The essential problem can be glimpsed in the very names of the institutions sending officials for this OSCE training. The S.A. Niyazov Institute of the Interior Ministry is named for past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov; the Institute for State and Law puts the state above the law; the National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights under the President encapsulates the invasive control of the president in every institution; the Academy for State Service is actually to train officials for civil service.