The EU should obtain significant improvements in the field of human rights

Press release

Today, the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, arrives in Brussels for a visit with European Union officials. Replacing Saparmurad Niazov in February 2007, one the most notorious governors responsible for systematic and grave violations of human rights, M. Berdymukhammedov declared that important changes would be undertaken in order to counteract the measures of Niazov’s oppressive regime and to open the country towards the international scene. The 10-year school system and Internet connections were restored a few days after his coming into power, some social guarantees were re-established and free circulation within the country was authorized in July 2007.

However, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) fear that these declarations are a facade meant to imitate the democratic reforms rather than actually lead any. Despite the President’s efforts to change the image of the country the human rights situation in Turkmenistan hasn’t changed much.

The media are still under a permanent and strict control, and the independent journalists face pressure and continuous harassment. One of many examples of this is the case of Sonna Chuli-Kuli, an independent journalist detained in April 2007; her computer was confiscated and she was then forced, under threat, to abandon all journalist activity. Foreign press is still unauthorized to be delivered in Turkmenistan despite the President’s promises, the Internet is totally controlled by the secret services and its development is in the hands of highly corrupted officials.

Without international monitors having proper access to the country, the monitoring of the human rights situation remains extremely difficult, notably following the quasi-impossibility for local human rights defenders to operate in the country. Nowadays, all contacts between human rights defenders and foreigners are considered as high treason. During the official foreign delegations visits to the country, the civil activists and human rights defenders are isolated (put under domestic detention) to avoid any undesired contacts with delegation members. During the recent OSCE representatives visit to the country whereby their official programme included a meeting with civil society representatives, various activists were called in advance to the Ministry of National security and warned that their presence at these meetings would cause them harm. During the visit of Ms Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in May 2007, more than 10 people were isolated in their homes and one person was arrested. Natalia Shabunz (from the «Civic assistance» association) was one of them. She has suffered this measure several times on various occasions.

The fate of political opponents arrested in November 2002 and condemned throughout 2003 for the «assassination plot against President Niazov» remains unknown. Their families have appealed several times the new President Berdymukhammedov, asking him to inform them of the whereabouts and the situation of their relatives and to allow them a meeting after 5 years of imprisonment. They have never received an answer. However, they managed to find out from reliable sources of information that their relatives were tortured under investigation and 8 of them allegedly died in detention. One of them is believed to be Tagan Khallyev, ex-speaker of the Parliament. Their families were not informed of these deaths and their bodies were neither shown nor released.

The so-called "black list" of persons who are forbidden to leave the country still exists. This list, kept secret, contains from 2 to 15 thousand names, mainly civil activists, dissidents, human rights defenders and the relatives of people arrested on politically sensitive accusations.

The practice of collective punishment remains active. Already after the accession to power of President Berdymukhammedov, the wife of the speaker of the Parliament Ovezgeldy Ataev, dismissed just after Niazov’s death and condemned in early 2007 (under the Turkmen Constitution he was supposed to lead the country in case of President’s death) was arrested. She is now being kept in the women’s penitentiary colony DZK-8. When President Niazov’s Security chief general Redzhepov was dismissed on May 15, 2007, he was condemned in August 2007 together with his son Nurmurat Redzhepov. Recently, the relatives (the mother and the son) of ex Minister of Foreign Affaires Shihmuradov, who has been in prison for 5 years already, were formally condemned in July 2007 for falsification of documents and bribes but in reality for "contacts with foreigners".

FIDH and TIHR welcome recent gestures of openness through the meetings of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov with Ambassador Christian Strohal, the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and Ms Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. When President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is deploying efforts to break the isolation of his country within the international scene, the EU should take this opportunity to instil these efforts with real value. EU should clearly understand that these attempts do not represent yet any significant and concrete changes that would modify the severe pattern of human rights violations.

FIDH and TIHR strongly urge the EU, when negotiating the terms of future cooperation, to obtain significant and sustainable improvements in the fields of human rights, in particular on the improvement of the situation of human rights defenders. More generally, the EU should request the Turkmen authorities to improve their human rights record, to guarantee the respect for fundamental freedoms, to put an end to any kind of politically motivated prosecution and to conform with international and regional human rights standards.

Press contact : Karine Appy + 33 1 43 55 14 12 / + 33 1 43 55 25 18

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