Kurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was elected President in February; he had been acting President since President Saparmurad Niyazov’s death in December 2006. All six presidential candidates were members of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the only registered party.
President Berdymukhammedov restored cuts in the length of school and university education imposed by his predecessor and reinstated pension payments abolished in 2006. Several internet cafes opened across the country, but were too expensive for most people. Several websites critical of the authorities remained blocked and the authorities closely monitored internet use. Internal travel restrictions were largely abolished but the system of registration inherited from Soviet times (widely referred to by the Russian word propiska) continued to make it virtually impossible for citizens to live and find employment in parts of the country other than where they were registered.
In August the President established the Interdepartmental Commission of Human Rights. It was tasked with preparing reports to UN treaty bodies (several of which were long overdue) and drafting a National Human Rights Programme. The authorities invited the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to visit Turkmenistan. Other UN special procedures received no favourable responses to similar requests.
Continuing his predecessor’s approach, President Berdymukhammedov addressed fundamental problems such as corruption and nepotism in government agencies mainly through personnel changes rather than fundamental reforms.
Politically motivated repression
There were reports of harassment, detention and imprisonment of dissidents, independent journalists, civil society activists and members of religious minorities. The authorities prevented civil society activists from communicating with international delegations visiting Turkmenistan. Dissidents, religious believers and their relatives were frequently prevented from leaving the country.
- Ovezgeldy Ataev, who was dismissed from his post as Speaker of Parliament shortly after the late President died, was sentenced to four or five years’ imprisonment in February. There were allegations that he was targeted as part of a power struggle following the late President’s death. According to the Constitution, the Speaker of Parliament was the constitutionally designated successor to the President.
- Vyacheslav Kalataevsky, a Baptist leader in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in May for crossing the border illegally in 2001. The charge was reportedly brought to punish him for his religious activities. He was pardoned in October but subsequently denied a residence permit in Turkmenistan. Vyacheslav Kalataevsky was born in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic but obtained Ukrainian citizenship while in Ukraine when the Soviet Union broke up. He had to leave Turkmenistan in December, leaving behind his parents, wife and children.
Some prisoners whose cases had been raised by the international community were released or had their suspended sentences cancelled in pardons in August and October. They included: environmental activist Andrei Zatoka; former Mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah; conscientious objectors Nuryagdy Gairov, Suleiman Udaev and Aleksandr Zuev; and former director of the Government Association Turkmenatlary (Turkmen Horses) Geldy Kyarizov.
Prisoners held incommunicado
Dozens of prisoners continued to be denied all access to families, lawyers and independent bodies including the International Committee of the Red Cross. Labelled as “enemies of the people” by the authorities, they were sentenced following unfair trials in connection with an alleged assassination attempt on the late President in 2002. Many were allegedly tortured following their arrests. According to non-governmental sources, most were held in Ovadan-depe prison, known for its particularly harsh conditions. According to an unconfirmed report, since 2002 at least eight prisoners had died as a result of torture, other ill-treatment, harsh prison conditions and lack of appropriate medical treatment. Relatives of several prisoners reportedly asked the new government for permission to send parcels and letters at least once a year, and asked for the names of those who had died in prison. They received no written reply but government officials reportedly told them that their requests were denied.
At least six Jehovah’s Witnesses stood trial for refusing to serve in the army on conscientious grounds. The courts handed down sentences ranging from 18 months’ suspended to 18 months’ imprisonment. On appeal the courts commuted the prison sentences to suspended sentences. Three of the men were pardoned in October. However, two others, Bayram Ashirgeldiev and Begench Shakhmuradov, whose sentences had been suspended, had restrictions imposed on their movements and the authorities refused to issue them with a document necessary to find employment.
- Begench Shakhmuradov was called up for military service in May and in September received a suspended two-year prison sentence from a court in Ashgabat for “evasion of call-up to military service”. He had already served a prison term on the same charge in 2005. While in detention he reportedly contracted tuberculosis.
On 19 February President Berdymukhammedov established the State Commission to review citizens’ complaints regarding the activities of law enforcement agencies. He became its chairman. There was a lack of transparency in establishing the Commission, in publishing its rules and procedures, and in reporting on its work. In some cases the Commission passed on complaints to the government agency which was the subject of the complaint. Complainants received replies stating that the complaints were unfounded, but giving no further information.
- Ruslan Tukhbatullin complained to the Commission about being dismissed from the army in 2005. He was allegedly dismissed to put pressure on his brother, Farid Tukhbatullin, director of the NGO Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights, who has lived in exile since 2003. Ruslan Tukhbatullin received a reply from the Ministry of Defence, the agency that had dismissed him, stating that the dismissal had not been a violation of his rights.