Turkmenistan’s new president should deliver on his pledge to ‘’humanise’’ government policies and ensure that citizens are not imprisoned for voicing concerns and communicating with independent media, human rights groups, and opposition movements based abroad, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) have today said. The two organisations urged Turkmenistan’s international partners to demand the release of all those currently held behind bars on such grounds in the country, as well as an end to the persecution of citizens who speak out against injustice and seek support from others for this purpose.
Following an orchestrated transfer of power from father to son and an election devoid of any real choice, Serdar Berdymukhamedov took office as Turkmenistan’s new president on 19 March 2022. In his inauguration address, he stated that his ‘’main duty’’ will be ‘’to protect the rights of citizens as guaranteed by the constitution’’ and pledged to ensure ‘’a humane state policy’’ in this area. However, three months into his presidency, Berdymukhamedov has failed to take any meaningful steps to improve the human rights situation in the country.
‘’The Turkmenistani authorities have attempted to curry favour with the international community through empty promises and paper-thin exercises on human rights. The government’s international partners should not accept this as progress, but insist that the new president takes concrete measures to roll back repressive policies. This should, as a matter of priority, include putting a stop to the use of criminal prosecution as a tool to punish and silence critics,’’ said Farid Tuhbatullin, Chairperson of TIHR.
Turkmenistan is currently one of the world’s most repressive countries, whose authorities tolerate no dissent or public discussion on the impact of the protracted economic crisis, the government’s policy of denial of the Covid-19 pandemic, or other pressing issues affecting the population. Anyone who openly criticises the government risks persecution, including by being arrested, convicted, and imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Given the closed nature of the country’s justice and prison systems, the full scale of this practice is not known. However, based on information from sources inside the country, human rights groups regularly report on cases of politically motivated prosecution targeted at individuals who have dared to speak out on issues of concern.
TIHR recently learned of an alarming new case. Agajuma Bayramov, a 73-year-old resident of the village of Sandykachi in Mary Region, is believed to have been imprisoned in retaliation for his efforts to draw attention to socio-economic problems and violations of the rights of citizens. A criminal case was reportedly fabricated against him in 2016 after he first submitted numerous appeals to authorities and thereafter gave several interviews to the Prague-based Turkmen Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on issues such as unemployment, corrupt practices in education, and problems with transportation.
In an interview to RFE/RL in March 2016, Bayramov said that elderly people in the village had demanded that he stop speaking to independent media. Three months later, he disappeared. In late June 2016, he called independent journalist Soltan Achilova, who was RFE/RL’s correspondent at the time and currently cooperates with TIHR, to say that he was planning to travel to Ashgabat a few days later and wanted to give another interview. However, he never showed up to the interview and his phone number became inaccessible. Only in May 2022 did Achilova hear from Bayramov again; he told her that he had spent close to six years behind bars on baseless charges of attempted rape – an accusation also known to have been levelled against others targeted for politically motivated reasons. He recounted being regularly subjected to torture and ill-treatment in prison, as a result of which he lost his hearing and developed serious health issues. He spent a period of his imprisonment in the infamous Ovadan-Depe Prison, known to house prisoners convicted on politically motivated charges.
After his release, Bayramov has reportedly remained under tight police control, being requested to report to local police every day, receiving regular police visits at home, and being prohibited from leaving his home village without police permission – which he has been denied. On 19 June 2022, he travelled to Ashgabat to visit his two sons and their families without police permission. Upon arrival in the capital, he was detained by police at the train station and sent back under police escort. He believes that police feared that he might meet with journalist Soltan Achilova to discuss his situation (following up on phone conversations he has had with her) and that police control of him is now likely to be further stepped up. In addition, on 20 June, police arrived at the homes of his two sons in Ashgabat without warning, spoke rudely to and sought to intimidate them, and demanded that they cut contact with their father.
Given difficulties surrounding communication with Bayramov given the current situation, it has not been possible for TIHR and IPHR to obtain further information about his case, including the details of his conviction. However, available information clearly suggests that he was and continues to be targeted for expressing views critical of the authorities.
‘’This case fits into a pattern in Turkmenistan by which people have been prosecuted on spurious criminal charges after standing up for their rights, criticising unjust practices, and communicating with independent media, human rights groups, and foreign-based opposition activists. The EU and its member states should make it clear that this practice must come to an end if the Turkmenistani government wishes to forge closer ties with European countries,’’ said Brigitte Dufour, Director of IPHR.
A number of others are known to currently be imprisoned in Turkmenistan in retaliation for their peaceful exercise of the freedoms of expression and association. Among them are journalist Nurgeldy Khalykov, who was sentenced to four years in prison on fraud charges after the authorities discovered his cooperation with the Netherlands-based Turkmen News; doctor Khursanai Ismatullaeva, who was sentenced to nine years in prison on similar charges after seeking support from exile-based human rights groups in her struggle for justice over her unfair dismissal; and lawyer Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, who was handed a six-year prison sentence on charges of hooliganism and infliction of bodily harm, believed to have been initiated because of his alleged links to government-critical activists based abroad. UN human rights mechanisms, human rights groups, and foreign decisionmakers have all raised concerns about these cases. Concerns for the wellbeing of these individuals and others like them remain heightened, particularly with regards to the deplorable prison conditions, widespread torture and ill-treatment, and frequent use of incommunicado detention throughout the country’s penitentiary system.
In addition to targeting critics living in Turkmenistan for prosecution, the authorities have sought the detention and return of outspoken activists based abroad. These individuals would be at a serious risk of politically motivated arrest, imprisonment, and torture where they to be returned. The authorities also continue to put pressure on critical voices in other ways, including by intimidating their relatives and people with whom they have been in contact. For example, independent journalist Soltan Achilova told TIHR that people whom she has interviewed have been questioned by the security services over their conversations with her and warned that they may face ‘’serious problems’’ if they maintain contact with her.
TIHR and IPHR called on the Turkmenistani authorities to:
- Ensure that Agajuma Bayramov and his family are not subjected to any further persecution, that his allegations of unlawful imprisonment and torture are impartially and thoroughly investigated and those responsible held accountable, and that he receives adequate treatment for his health problems;
- Release Nurgeldy Khalykov, Khursanai Ismatullaeva, Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, and others imprisoned for raising concerns, seeking justice, and communicating with organisations and activists based abroad. As long as they remain behind bars, the authorities should ensure that their treatment fully corresponds to international standards;
- End harassment and intimidation of citizens who peacefully seek and share information, make appeals, and communicate with others on issues of concern to them and ensure that their relatives and others who are in contact with them are not subjected to pressure.
The two organisations urge Turkmenistan’s international partners to support these appeals and to convey them to President Serdar Berdymukhamedov’s government.