POLITICAL PRISONERS IN TURKMENISTAN
According to the U.S. Department of State: “Opposition groups and some international organizations stated the government held political prisoners and detainees. The precise number of these individuals, which included persons charged with involvement in the 2002 attack on then president Niyazov, remained unknown. According to one international representative, however, the government asserted in September that it had imprisoned 104 individuals in the wake of the coup attempt and released 32. Those convicted of treason faced life imprisonment and were ineligible for amnesty, although they could receive reductions of sentence from the president. The government denied that any of these individuals were political prisoners. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]
Prominent political prisoners in the mid 2000s included Geldy Kyarizov, the former director of the Government Association Turkmenatlary (Turkmen Horses) and an internationally renowned breeder of the famous Akhal Teke horses. He was imprisoned for for "abuse of office" and "negligence". Akmurad Rejepov, head of the presidential guard under late President Saparmurat Niyazov and his son Nurmurad Rejepov were jailed for undisclosed reasons. Former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov was imprisoned for life for what Turkmen authorities say was his leading role in the alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov in 2002. [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, October 9, 2007 ^^^]
In 2014, Mansur Mingelov, an activist for the rights of Balochi minorities, remained in prison. According to AI reports, he conducted a hunger strike from May 19 to June 7 in an attempt to have his case reviewed. The authorities reportedly reviewed his case but did not release him from prison. Authorities initially arrested and allegedly beat him in 2012. In October the government released eight members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, most of whom had been imprisoned on charges related to their conscientious objection to compulsory military service. \*\
Some Political Prisoners Freed in Turkmenistan Amnesty
In October 2007, almost 9,000 prisoners were released in a general amnesty in Turkmenistan ordered by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov but among those not released were some high-profile government opponents and former government officials.Bruce Pannier of Radio Free Europe wrote: “Turkmen state television showed some of the prisoners released on October 8 performing traditional acts of penance and swearing not to return to a life of crime.The most notable figure freed was Geldy Kyarizov, the internationally renowned horse breeder. Kyarizov's prison term for "abuse of office" and "negligence" was due to expire in April 2008. Kyarizov was the subject of numerous clemency appeals to the Turkmen government by rights organizations. He had been held in detention since January 2002 and, according to Amnesty International, has long been in ill health. [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, October 9, 2007 ^^^]
Nurmurad Rejepov, the son of the former head of the presidential guard under late President Saparmurat Niyazov, was also released. The reason for freeing the younger Rejepov -- as was true of the grounds on which he and his father were jailed -- remains unclear. Not released was former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov. But Shikhmuradov's nephew and his wife were set free.” ^^^
The “week's amnesty saw the release of 8,853 people. According to Turkmen authorities, some 5,000 had been imprisoned this year and 2,500 were jailed last year. Those convicted of serious crimes such as murder, rape, or terrorism are never released, while government officials jailed for corruption and embezzlement are also not included in the amnesties. The list of those scheduled to be released this week includes 1,370 women. The only women's prison in the country -- in the northern city of Dashoguz -- is supposed to hold a maximum of 700 inmates. ^^^
In 2014, around 9,000 Turkmen prisoners to be released under the orders of President Niyazov. PTI reported: The prisoners were freed by the Eid al-Fitr holiday on November 9, Niyazov told a session of the People's Council. Niyazov has drawn strong international criticism for human rights abuses, but he has granted amnesty to more than 120,000 prisoners in the past 12 years. [Source: PTI, October Oct 23, 2004]
Torture in Turkmenistan
According to the U.S. Department of State: “While the constitution and law prohibit such practices, Amnesty International (AI) reported security officials tortured and beat criminal suspects, prisoners, and individuals deemed critical of the government to extract confessions and as a form of punishment. Members of the international Jehovah’s Witnesses community reported that on July 3, law enforcement officials in Dashoguz beat and threatened a Jehovah’s Witness with rape. The officials also reportedly detained the individual in a drug rehabilitation center for two days and subjected the individual to four injections of a paralyzing substance. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]
According to a 2013 AI report, methods of torture employed by security officials included “electric shocks, asphyxiation, rape, forcible administration of psychotropic drugs, deprivation of food and drink, and exposure to extreme cold.” The law requires the government to provide for the health and lives of members of the armed forces. Members of the military reported, however, that hazing of conscripts continued and involved violations of human dignity, including brutality. There were reports of two conscripts who allegedly died due to hazing incidents. Members of the military reported that officers responded to cases of abuse, inspected conscripts for signs of abuse, and punished abusers in some cases. Hazing of conscripts reportedly was more prevalent outside of Ashgabat. Interrogation and Harassment Turkmenistan Style
Saparmurad Ovezberdiyev, a correspondent in Ashgabat for Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service, disappeared as he left his house to get an exit visa to travel to Russia. He wrote in the Washington Post: “As I set off for the for the ministry by taxi, I noticed soldiers everywhere. One of them motioned for us to stop. Men presenting identification from the Committee for National Security pulled me out of the car and shoved me into a van and pulled a bag over my head. I soon found myself in at committee headquarters, where a doctor gave me an injection, supposedly for high blood pressure.”[Source: Washington Post, August 6, 2004]
“They hauled me before an interrogator who barked questions at me, ‘Why do you work for Radio Free Europe? Why do you create problems and encourage anarchy in the country?’ Then he threatened, ‘You’ll never leave here. You’re looking at 20 years.’ They brought me back to my cell, where I waited. Guards brought me gruel and inedible bread.” When his wife called the police after he disappeared to ask where he was they suggested that she look in the morgue. Finally with the help of the U.S. embassy he was freed.
Two months later, he wrote, “I stepped out of my house to take out some garbage, Someone threw a bag over my head from behind, and two men began to hit me and shove me into a car. We drove for a long time as they beat me with water-filled plastic bottles, standard security committee practice to cause pain without leaving bruises.”
“We came to a halt. A man told me I could pay $1,000 and go free. ‘Is that $1,000 for the two of you? I asked. He grew angry and hit me again. They took off my denim shirt, pulled by T-shirt up over my head, and pushed me out of the car and onto the ground. They said, ‘We’re going to bury you alive.’...I heard a car pulling away. When I extricated myself and looked around, I saw they had brought me to the Vatutin cemetery. But I was alone and alive.” After that even though the U.S. embassy sent body guards to protect him, security agent continued to harass him and threatened him. He eventually left the country.
Arbitrary Arrest or Detention in Turkmenistan
According to the U.S. Department of State: “The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but both remained serious problems. The law characterizes any opposition to the government as treason. Persons convicted of treason faced life imprisonment and were ineligible for amnesty. In the past the government arrested and filed charges on economic or criminal grounds against those expressing critical or differing views instead of charging its critics with treason. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]
There were reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions. Authorities frequently singled out human rights activists, members of religious groups, ethnic minorities, and dissidents, as well as members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who interacted with foreigners. On July 5, according to Forum 18 News, law enforcement authorities detained Jehovah’s Witness Bibi Rahmanova, her husband Vepa Tuvakov, and their four-year-old son at the Dashoguz train station. The police reportedly used force with Rahmanova and beat Tuvakov before releasing them on July 7. On August 7, authorities reportedly detained Rahmanova at the DZD-7 detention facility in Dashoguz. On August 18, a court convicted her on charges of hooliganism and violence against a law enforcement officer and sentenced her to four years in prison. On September 2, an appeals court overturned the ruling, gave Rahmanova a suspended three-year sentence, and released her from prison.
Interference with Privacy, Family, Home in Turkmenistan
According to the U.S. Department of State: “The government failed to enforce the law consistently with respect to restitution or compensation for confiscation of private property. In 2007 President Berdimuhamedov announced there would be no housing demolition unless replacement housing was available. Nonetheless, the government continued to demolish private homes as part of an urban renewal program without adequately compensating the owners. The number and manner of resolution of complaints brought before the commission charged with considering complaints from residents whose homes were located at the construction sites of new buildings could not be determined. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, but authorities frequently did not respect these prohibitions. Authorities reportedly searched the homes of individuals without judicial authorization. The law does not regulate surveillance by the state security apparatus, which regularly monitored the activities of officials, citizens, opponents and critics of the government, and foreigners. Security officials used physical surveillance, telephone tapping, electronic eavesdropping, and informers. Authorities frequently queried the parents of students studying overseas and sometimes threatened state employees they would lose their jobs if they maintained friendships with foreigners. \*\
The government reportedly intercepted surface mail before delivery, and letters and parcels taken to the post office had to remain unsealed for government inspection. Individuals who were harassed, detained, or arrested by authorities, as well as their family members, reported that the government caused family members to be fired from their jobs or expelled from school. Authorities sometimes also detained and interrogated family members. \*\
Arrest and Imprisonment of Horse Breeder Geldy Kyarizov
Geldy Kyarizov is an accomplished long-distance horse rider, a long-time advocate for the purity of Turkmenistan’s Akhal Teke breed and an internationally renowned breeder of Akhal Teke horses. He served as the director of the Government Association Turkmenatlary (Turkmen Horses), the highest Turkmenistan government position related to horses under Niyazob before being imprisoned in January 2002 with a six-year sentence on the trumped up charges of "abuse of office" and "negligence". Following President Niyazov’s death 2006, Kyarizov was freed in October 2007, a few months before his sentence was due to expire in April 2008. He was freed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist turned politician who also worships Akhal Teke horses and even wrote a book about them. Berdymukhammedov ordered Kyarizov’s release during amnesty in which 9,000 prisoners were released. Kyarizov had been the subject of numerous clemency appeals to the Turkmen government by rights organizations. According to Amnesty International he was in ill health during his time in jail.
Merhat Sharipzhan of Radio Free Europe wrote: He was arrested on December 31, 2002, on charges of negligence and abuse of office that he said were groundless and politically motivated. Kyarizov was swept up in a purge launched by Niyazov after what Turkmen authorities said was an assassination attempt against him five weeks earlier, on November 25. Several dozen so-called Novembrists -- former officials associated with the alleged ringleader, then-Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov -- are known to have been imprisoned in Ovadan Depe, which Niyazov ordered built the same year to house convicted political activists, opposition figures, and alleged Islamic extremists. [Source: Merhat Sharipzhan, Radio Free Europe, December 5, 2015 ***]
“Shikhmuradov, who was sentenced to life in prison, was widely believed to have been held in Ovadan Depe as well -- but there have been widespread reports saying that he was tortured to death.Turkmen officials have never revealed Shikhmuradov's location, and have neither confirmed nor denied reports of his death. The authorities did not formally accuse Kyarizov of involvement in the alleged assassination plot, but he was under constant pressure over suspicions among the authorities — which he says were misplaced — that he was a member of Shikhmuradov's circle.” ***
According to Long Rider’s Guild founder CuChullaine O’Reilly, Kyarizov became a man condemned by his past. Niyazov, who had once hailed him as a champion because of his efforts to save the Akhal Teke breed, stripped Kyarizov of power, publicly humiliated him, imprisoned on “fabricated charges” and denied medical treatment. Kyarizov O’Reilly said, was effectively held as a political captive. [Source: Horsetalk.co.nz, September 15, 2015]
Kyarizov Imprisoned for Doubting the Purity of Akhal Tekes in Turkmenistan?
Long Riders’ Guild founder CuChullaine says that Kyarizov’s life began spiralling out of control the moment he publicly argued that impure horses – specifically thoroughbred crosses introduced to bloodlines from 1997 to 2002 – had to be weeded out from the breed. It provoked the resentment of other Akhal Teke breeders, and incited the anger of the Turkmen government, he wrote. [Source:Horsetalk.co.nz, September 15, 2015 <|>]
O’Reilly asserted: “We believe Kyarizov’s unlawful detention is connected to the government’s unjustified concern that Akhal Tekes will be revealed to have been genetically diluted by the deliberate introduction of thoroughbred blood. Thus politicians in Ashgabat may mistakenly believe that by silencing Kyarizov they can protect the equestrian myth enshrined by their leaders. [Source: Horsetalk.co.nz, September 15, 2015 <|>]
“Turkmenistan might wish to continue that pretence but the rest of the world need not agree. The truth about Akhal Tekes is widely known and easily accessible. A quick check of a public source such as Wikipedia instantly reveals that it is common knowledge that Turkmenistan’s Akhal Tekes are genetically suspect. At present Akhal Teke horses in Turkmenistan are not registered with any other studbook. The main reasons for this are allegations of a heavy infusion of thoroughbred blood into the breed to create faster horses for racing in Turkmenistan. <|>
“There are estimates that as many as 30 percent of the horses in the Ashgabat hippodrome were not purebred. This may have also been a main reason for the fabricated charges against … Kyarizov, who tried to avoid and remedy the secretive out-crossing and found himself in severe opposition to fellow breeders.” <|>
O’Reilly notes that, ironically, in the intervening years since Kyarizov’s arrest, other countries such as Italy, England and America have excelled in breeding pure Akhal Teke horses. He called at the time for Berdymukhamedov to recognize and respect Kyarizov’s human rights; to review his case without delay; to provide justification for keeping him and family detained; to either release Kyarizov or face the condemnation of the world. <|>
Kyarizov’s Life in a Turkmen Prison
Merhat Sharipzhan of Radio Free Europe wrote: After armed guards led Geldy Kyarizov through the gates of Ovadan Depe, a prison in the Turkmen desert outside Ashgabat, they tore the sack off his head and told him, "Only God can help you now." A little later, cellmates in the maximum-security prison's "special block" had another warning for the newcomer: "Nobody has left this place alive yet," they told him. "People only arrive here." [Source: Merhat Sharipzhan, Radio Free Europe, December 5, 2015 ***]
“Kyarizov described Ovadan Depe as a "horrific" place whose inmates rarely saw the sky and were starved to the point of emaciation and despair. Ovadan Depe means "picturesque hill" -- a name derived from the prison's location on a rare rise in the Kara-Kum desert 50 kilometers northwest of Ashgabat, the Central Asian country's capital. The name is a piece of bitter irony for inmates, according to Kyarizov. ***
“When he was there, prisoners were allowed outside their cells once a week, for seven minutes, when they were escorted out of the special block for a shower and a shave. "In those seven minutes, while they take you through a corridor -- a 3-meter by 4-meter room with a metal grate above -- you can see the sky," he said. "Nobody sees the sky otherwise. In the cell, the window has a very thick metal grid and it is covered by metal blinds on the outside. You cannot see anything directly through it. You have to bend to be able to see the sky." ***
“He spent nearly five years in a string of jails and prisons before he was sent to Ovadan Depe in 2006. "They brought me to the Ovadan Depe prison with a sack on my head," he said. After it was removed, Kyarizov was quickly struck by the security at Ovadan Depe, which was much tighter than at any of the other lockups at which he had been held. Some of the cells were shut behind iron doors bearing the inscription: "To be opened only in presence of three services: Interior Ministry, KGB and Prosecutor's Office," he said.Former officials, including Kyarizov, were held in the prison's separate "special block," an imposing structure whose main gate opened vertically to ensure it could never be left ajar. Inside, each cell had a vertical door and a second lattice door with a hole for food delivery, he said, adding that "it is also locked and sealed. Nobody can open it."
Kyarizov Describes 'Torture By Hunger' in a Turkmen Prison
"They do not torture inmates with electricity or tear the flesh off their bodies with red-hot tongs. No, it is not necessary to do that there. People are simply deprived of food there -- they torture by hunger," Kyarizov told Radio Free Europe."Only skin and bones are left," Kyarizov said of the inmates. "And they look at each other like monkeys in a zoo." [Source: Merhat Sharipzhan, Radio Free Europe, December 5, 2015 ***]
Merhat Sharipzhan of Radio Free Europe wrote: Kyarizov's cellmates were so thin that they looked "scary." And they told him that a few months before his arrival, prominent politician Geday Akhmedov -- a former provincial governor who had been decorated by Niyazov as a Hero of Turkmenistan -- starved to death in the same cell. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner was a thin slice of bread and a small portion of watery millet porridge with no meat, oil, or fat in it -- but, like the bread, with plenty of sand and small stones. At lunch, each inmate also got a plastic bowl of "soup" -- just boiled water, sometimes with a few scraps of onion or potatoes. ***
“A cup of weak, tepid tea was allowed in the morning, and replaced at lunch and dinner with the boiled leaves of the camelthorn plant. According to Kyarizov, the food given to inmates was made with leftovers from the meals cooked for the armed guards, young Turkmen conscripts. "In just five months I lost almost 40 kilograms. I weighed 96 kilograms when they brought me to Ovadan Depe, and my weight was 59 when I was released," Kyarizov said. "That is just in five months imagine what happens to those who spend years there."” ***
Kyarizov's recollections of Ovadan Depe are echoed by more recent reports from groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty international, and Crude Accountability about conditions there. Crude Accountability, a U.S.-based organization that focuses on petroleum-impacted communities in the Caspian Sea region, said in a 2014 report that "torture is widespread in Ovadan Depe." ***
"Beatings are a regular occurrence.... Sources describe the use of dogs, batons, and subsequent loss of consciousness, damage to the kidneys, and the inability to walk," the report said. "'Kartsers' or cylindrical dark solitary confinement cells, are also used as a means of torture. The minuscule amounts of food and water, combined with mosquito infestations and extreme temperatures made the stays in the kartsers a psychologically and physically impossible form of torture." The report's description of food, or lack of it, is similar to Kyarizov's account. It said a source who spent several years in Ovadan Depe "received no food except hot wheat porridge and pumpkin, which was passed to the inmates inside their cells. There was never any meat." ***
Kyarizov After His Release from Prison
“Following his release from prison, Kyarizov was granted a Russian visa, but was prohibited from leaving Turkmenistan. In September 2015, Geldy Kyarizov stepped safely on to Russian soil, following his controversial detention in his homeland. Kyarizov’s son, Daud, who lives in the United States, confirmed to supporters that his father had arrived in Moscow. His arrival is the culmination of ongoing behind-the-scenes efforts by his supporters to secure his freedom through diplomatic channels, with Kyarizov considered a political prisoner by many. [Source: Horsetalk.co.nz, September 15, 2015]
Kyarizov told Radio Free Europe that his release saved his life. But he was barred from leaving Turkmenistan after he refused to publicly express his gratitude to Berdymukhammedov in a televised statement. Merhat Sharipzhan of Radio Free Europe wrote: And he found himself shut out of the horse-breeding business, unable to find a job working with the animals due to his "criminal record." The authorities took the last of his horses, which had been kept by his wife, Yulia Serebryannik, and had his house razed, saying it had been built illegally -- another claim Kyarizov called groundless and politically motivated. [Source: Merhat Sharipzhan, Radio Free Europe, December 5, 2015 ***]
“Kyarizov had to abort an attempt to leave Turkmenistan in December 2014. With Russian visas and tickets to Moscow in hand, he and his family went to the airport only to have their documents canceled by officials who said they were barred from leaving the country. But in September he and close relatives were permitted to leave one by one -- a change of heart he ascribes to international pressure on Turkmenistan to improve its human rights record. ***
“Kyarizov has no plans to return to Turkmenistan, where he fears he and his family would not be safe. But he said people who want change in Turkmenistan should speak out. "If they keep their mouths shut, this situation will never end," Kyarizov said. Silence "gives tyrants a free hand," he added. "Keeping silent is bad. I say that not because I am now free and therefore I am brave. No. I say that because I know that thousands of people are still in jails there." ***
Turkmen Environmental Escapes Jail
In January 2009, a harsh five-year sentence for assault given to environmental activist Andrei Zatoka's was overturned and replaced with an undisclosed fine. Antoine Blua of Radio Free Europe wrote: it marked the second time in three years the prominent Turkmen environmental activist has narrowly avoided going to prison for what he believes were trumped-up charges. A regional court in Turkmenistan's northern Dashoguz Province overturned the sentence handed down last week against Zatoka for assault, Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service reported from the court hearing. The court ruled that Zatoka, 53, be freed upon paying an undisclosed fine. [Source: Antoine Blua, Radio Free Europe, November 6, 2009 |+|]
“Zatoka was found guilty on October 29 of attacking a man nine days earlier in a Dashoguz market, and received the maximum available sentence for the assault charge. Zatoka has denied the charges, claiming that he was the victim of an unprovoked attack at the market, and that he inflicted no bodily harm on the alleged assailant. When police arrived, Zatoka claims, they let the other man go and detained him in what he believes was a politically motivated setup. Both rights and environmental groups say the fact that Zatoka, whose environmental group was shut down by the state in 2003 and who is currently serving a suspended three-year sentence owing to another politically charged case, has been under pressure from the authorities for years.|+|
“Zatoka, a biologist by training who holds dual Russian and Turkmen citizenship, sent a letter to Russia's ambassador in Ashgabat ahead of last week's court hearing. In the letter, published by the Turkmen opposition website chrono-tm.org, Zatoka requested "diplomatic and legal support in connection with repression against me by the law enforcement bodies, which is politically motivated and is because of my Russian citizenship." He also said it was unclear why he was being targeted by the authorities, but that "I can only guess that it is linked to the fact that I was closely familiar with some Turkmen dissidents, particularly Farid Tukhbatullin." |+|
“Zatoka spent 1 1/2 months in prison in 2006-07 on charges of weapons possession and storage of poisonous substances. After he was taken into custody at Dashoguz's airport, three snakes, snake poison, and an unregistered weapon were reportedly found at his home. A letter posted by Russian human rights groups that came to his defense noted that, as a herpetologist, Zatoka had the "right to store the poison of studied reptiles and a light pneumatic weapon." Zatoka's case was followed closely by Russian rights groups and the Kremlin. The Russian and Turkmen foreign ministers discussed Zatoka's situation, and a rights watchdog under the Russian presidency took an active role in trying to secure his release. In the end, Zatoka was released after being handed a three-year suspended sentence, which effectively banned him from leaving the country.” |+|
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016