The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, an IPHR partner organization, has submitted comments to the UN Human Rights Committee in advance of the first-ever review of Turkmenistan under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These comments highlight serious violations of the covenant in Turkmenistan, in particular with respect to the situation of civil society, freedom of movement and the treatment of national minorities.
When taking office in 2007, current Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov set out on a reform agenda. However, while the past few years have seen a number of reform initiatives, most of these have only amounted to window-dressing and have had little practical impact. As a result, the overall situation has remained largely unchanged. The government continues to dominate all branches of power, there is no openly functioning political opposition, media is tightly controlled by the state, and the environment for civil society is extremely repressive. Restrictions on travel abroad are routinely used as a means of putting pressure on individuals who are perceived to be “disloyal” to the state. National minorities continue to suffer discrimination and are obstructed in their efforts to preserve and develop their language and culture.
Legislation in force provides for compulsory state registration of public associations and bans the activities of unregistered groups. Independent groups that have attempted to register have had their applications returned on various pretexts and no independent human rights NGOs are currently able to operate openly in the country. Most of the about 100 organizations that are registered are government-controlled and form part of a nation-wide movement that is headed by the president and viewed as having the role of helping to promote official policies.
Independent civil society activists who are courageous enough to openly address problems existing in Turkmen society face intimidation and harassment by security services on an ongoing basis. They are held under surveillance, summoned for interrogation, and threatened and pressured to give up their activities. In a number of cases, activists have been arrested, charged and imprisoned on politically motivated grounds or forcibly placed in psychiatric care.
Relatives and friends of civil society activists, including activists who have fled the country and now live in exile abroad, are also singled out for repressive measures.
In a well established practice, bans on travel abroad are used by Turkmen authorities as a means of punishing and putting pressure on civil society activists, journalists working with foreign media and others seen as being critical of Turkmen authorities, as well as their family members. Those targeted have not been able to travel to other countries for the purpose of work and studies, visits to relatives and friends, medical treatment etc. The names of exile activists are reportedly included on a secret list of people who are not “welcome” in Turkmenistan.
Travel bans have also been used against students and young graduates, including those already enrolled at universities abroad. In the context of the recent popular uprisings in the Middle East, which appear to have reinforced the government’s fears that domestic protest movements may arise also in Turkmenistan, local authorities have been contacting families with children who study or work abroad to inquire about these and to request detailed information about where they are and what they do. Teenagers have been pressured by teachers not to apply for participation in exchange programs abroad and those who have participated in such programs are closely watched by security services.
Any citizens who are considered ”inconvenient” by the authorities in any way risk being subjected to persecution. In recent cases reported to TIHR, targets have included pop singers who perform love songs rather than patriotic music of the kind favored by the government, citizens refusing to give up their struggle for justice for earlier mistreatment suffered and an ethnic Kazakh community leader involved in efforts to promote Kazakh culture.
Although the policy of “Turkmenization” has been scaled back to some extent under the current president, it remains an important element of official policies and national minorities continue to be impeded from exercising their right to enjoy their own culture in different ways. There are hardly any cultural institutions that support the preservation and development of their language and traditions. Decisions to discontinue teaching in national minority languages made under the previous regime have also not been reversed and discrimination against national minorities in access to higher education and civil service remains a problem.
Turkmenistan acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1997, but failed to submit a report on its implementation of it for more than ten years. The Human Rights Committee will adopt a list of issues for the review of Turkmenistan at its session in July 2011, while the actual review is scheduled to take place in March 2012.
Download the full text of TIHR’s submission, in PDF.
For more information about the Human Rights Committee, go here.