It’s no secret that Turkmenistan, a modern-day hermit khanate with one of the most repressive governments on earth, has an abundance of political prisoners. But until now, few details were known about how enemies of the state spent their time behind bars.
A report, issued September 24 by the watchdog group Crude Accountability, relies not only on eyewitness accounts but also on satellite surveillance to paint a full picture of life in Turkmenistan’s most notorious prison, Ovadan Depe, located about 30 miles northwest of the capital Ashgabat. As one might expect, various forms of torture are a big part of the daily routine.
Ovadan Depe, the report states, “was designed specifically to terminally erode the physical and mental wellbeing of the political prisoners it contains.”
Several sources who spoke to Crude Accountability, all but one on condition of anonymity, said prisoners were confined in total isolation “so that the inmates could not see anything outside of the cell.” Food was minimally nourishing and of poor quality and prisoners’ ability to exercise and speak was severely restricted.
“Beatings are a regular occurrence, sometimes as a mass occurrence, sometimes as an initiation of new inmates, and other times at a whim or an order from above,” the report said. “Sources describe the use of dogs, batons, and subsequent loss of consciousness, damage to the kidneys, and the inability to walk.”
On top of man-made misery, inmates are punished by Mother Nature: they have to contend with stifling conditions in the summer, when temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees centigrade, while enduring minus-20 weather in the winter without heating in cells. Sources also described a problem with “mosquito infestation” at Ovadan Depe. The report notes that international monitors have never been permitted inside the prison to assess conditions.
Working in conjunction with two entities, Geospatial Technologies and the Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the report used satellite imagery to determine the prison’s layout, and flesh out its history. The structure has six visible wings, with each spur “holding 16 cells 5 x 6 meters each and 10 cells of 6.5 x 6 meters each.” Construction, according to satellite photo analysis, was underway prior to 2002 and the structure was mostly complete by 2009. As part of the construction process, authorities may have forcibly evicted residents of a nearby village. The settlement “was completely abandoned under unknown circumstances” by 2002, according to the report.
“The government of Turkmenistan cannot deny the existence of this brutal institution,” said Kate Watters, Crude Accountability’s executive director. “The images analyzed by our colleagues … prove the prison has been constructed in the middle of the Turkmen desert.”
Overcrowding is a problem at the prison, with up to 12 prisoners crammed into a cell. Some prisoners are kept in solitary confinement in specially designed cylindrical, dark cells, the report stated. A few sources also maintained that the prison has “hunchback” cells that are only approximately 4.5 feet tall, thus preventing those kept in them from standing upright.
The worst treatment is reserved for so-called Novemberists, individuals imprisoned in connection with an alleged coup attempt in 2002 against former president Saparmurat Niyazov. Rights advocates say Turkmen government accounts of the 2002 incident are riddled with inconsistencies, casting into doubt the validity of convictions of Novemberists.
Links to the full report, titled The Ovadan Depe Prison: Medieval Torture in Modern Turkmenistan, will be fourthcoming.
A separate report issued September 24 by Crude Accountability, titled Prove They Are Alive!: The Disappeared in Turkmenistan, provides biographies and background for 66 political prisoners, including Novemberists.
Crude Accountability has been campaigning since September 2013 to force the Turkmen government to provide proof that Novembrists and other political prisoners who have not been heard from in years, and, in some cases, more than a decade, are still alive.
“The ‘Prove They Are Alive!’ campaign has catalogued and documented to the extent possible information about the disappeared in Turkmenistan,” Watters said. “Since the early 2000s, dozens of individuals have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons following politically motivated charges, unfair trials, and numerous violations of national and international human rights legislation.”
“We encourage policymakers, diplomats and business executives to read our report and to raise questions about the disappeared with Turkmen officials, demanding that they prove they are alive, and open the Turkmen prisons, including Ovadan Depe, to international observers including the Red Cross and Red Crescent,” Watters continued.
Justin Burke is editor of EurasiaNet.
Justin Burke is Eurasianet's publisher.