Legal system: civil law system with Islamic law influences. International law organization participation: has not submitted an ICJ jurisdiction declaration; non-party state to the ICCt. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Social control among the Turkmen has traditionally been exerted through tribal custom (“adat”) and Islamic law. Historically, tribal elders made decisions in councils that were designed to achieve consensus within the entire Turkmen community.

People have traditionally shown total respect for local khans, emirs or chiefs, who in turn have traditionally not shared power or limited it by law. Social control has traditionally been exerted through public opinion, especially that of local elders, known in many places as “white beards” (aksakal in Kyrgyz and oqsoqol in Uzbek).

The justice system is modeled after the Soviet justice system. There is no freedom in the justice in political and criminal trials the conviction rate is over 99 percent. Judges have been called "shamefully compliant." One judge dismissed claims of torture victim because "they couldn’t name their torturers."

Citizens of Turkmenistan are subject to very strict law and order. Many laws are either hold overs from the Soviet era or decrees by presidents Saparmurat Niyazov and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Legal disputes are sometimes settled with the Koran. Turkmenistan used to have capital punishment laws for the ‘heaviest’ crimes, including drug trafficking. In 1996, thirteen crimes were punishable by death, but few executions were known to have been carried out. In 1999, Niyazov was decreed that the death penalty would be abolished forever.

According to the U.S. Department of State: “ The civil judiciary system was neither independent nor impartial, as the president appointed all judges. According to the law, evidence gathered during a criminal investigation can serve as the basis for a civil action in a process called “civil lawsuit in criminal justice.” In the past there were reports of bribes in the civil court system to ensure a particular outcome. In cases in which the state had interests regarding an individual citizen, it used the judiciary to impose court orders. The most commonly enforced court orders were eviction notices. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State]

See Human Rights

Judicial Branch and Supreme Court in Turkmenistan

Judicial branch: highest court: Supreme Court of Turkmenistan (consists of the court president and 21 associate judges). Judges are appointed by the president. According to the Turkmenistan constitution they are supposed to be for five-year terms but they may serve longer than that. As one of the three branches of government, the judiciary is charged with upholding the constitution and the Supreme Law, as the national codex of civil and criminal law is called. [Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress]

Although the constitution calls for an independent judiciary, in practice the judicial branch is under the control of the president because of his authority to appoint and dismiss judges.The only national court is the Supreme Court, whose members are appointed by the president without legislative review. The president also has the authority to dismiss any judge. There is no constitutional court. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

The Supreme Court was established by the 1992 constitution. Of the three branches of government, the judiciary has the fewest powers; its prescribed functions are limited to review of laws for constitutionality and decisions concerning the judicial codex or Supreme Law. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary was subordinate to the executive. There was no legislative review of the president’s judicial appointments and dismissals. The president had sole authority to dismiss any judge. The judiciary was widely reputed to be corrupt and inefficient. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State]

Court System in Turkmenistan

There are provincial, district, and city courts as well as the High Commercial Court and military courts. Below the national level are five provincial courts and a separate court for the city of Ashgabat. Within the provinces are a total of 61 district and city courts. Civilian courts also hear criminal cases against members of the military. The decisions of lower courts may be appealed at the next level. The procurator’s office conducts all criminal investigations. Although the constitution states the right to counsel, few lawyers are available to represent defendants.

The court system is divided into three levels. At the highest level, the Supreme Court consists of twenty-two members, including a president and associate judges, and is divided into civil, criminal, and military chambers. The Supreme Court hears only cases of national importance; it does not function as an appeals court. At the next level, appellate courts function as courts of appeal in the six provinces and the city of Ashgabat. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Sixty-one trial courts operate in the districts and in some cities, with jurisdiction over civil, criminal, and administrative matters. In courts at this level, a panel of judges presides in civil and criminal suits, and typically one judge decides administrative cases. Outside this structure, military courts decide cases involving military discipline and crimes committed by and against military personnel. Also, the Supreme Economic Court performs the same function as the state arbitration court of the Soviet period, arbitrating disputes between enterprises and state agencies. The constitution stipulates that all judges at all levels are appointed by the president to terms of five years, and they may be reappointed indefinitely. Enjoying immunity from criminal and civil liability for their judicial actions, judges can be removed only for cause. *

Criminal Justice in Turkmenistan

The 1992 constitution declares that Turkmenistan is a state based on the rule of law, and that the constitution is the supreme law of the land. The Ministry of Justice oversees the judicial system, while the Office of the Procurator General is responsible for ensuring that investigative agencies and court proceedings are in compliance with the constitution and the Supreme Law. The president appoints the republic's procurator general and the procurators in each province, and the procurator general appoints those for the smallest political jurisdictions, the districts and the cities. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

Observers of several trends in the administration of justice in this court system have concluded that rudimentary elements of legal culture are absent in the implementation of legal proceedings in Turkmenistan. First, the judiciary is subservient to the Ministry of Justice, and it is especially deferential to the wishes of the president. Second, because the Office of the Procurator General fills the roles of grand jury, criminal investigator, and public prosecutor, it dominates the judicial process, especially criminal proceedings. Third, disregard for due process occurs frequently when higher officials apply pressure to judges concerned about reappointment, a practice known as "telephone justice." Fourth, the legal system disregards the role of lawyers in civil and criminal proceedings, and the Ministry of Justice has not permitted an organized bar. Finally, the republic's citizenry remains largely ignorant of the procedures and issues involved in the nation's legal system. *

The condition of the legal system and international doubts about human rights in Turkmenistan are indicators that this potentially prosperous former Soviet republic is far from Western-style democracy, despite the stability its government has achieved and the eagerness with which Western investors have approached it. Future years will determine whether this is a transitional stage of independent democracy, whether liberation from the Soviet empire has produced a permanently authoritarian nation, or whether the independent stance of the mid-1990s will yield to closer ties and more economic and military reliance on the Russian Federation. *

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “A warrant is not required for arrest when officials catch a suspect in the act of committing an offense. The prosecutor general must issue an authorization for arrest within 72 hours of detention. If investigating authorities do not find evidence of guilt and issue a formal indictment within 10 days of detention, they must release the detainee; however, authorities did not always comply with this requirement. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

If they find evidence, an investigation can last as long as two months. A provincial or national-level prosecutor may extend the investigation period to six months. The national prosecutor general or deputy prosecutor general may extend the investigation period to a maximum of one year. Following the investigation the prosecutor prepares a bill of indictment and transfers the case to the court. Courts generally followed these procedures, and the prosecutor promptly informed detainees of the charges against them.*\

The criminal procedure code provides for a bail system and surety; however, authorities did not implement these provisions. The law entitles detainees to immediate access to an attorney of their choice after a formal accusation. For a number of reasons, however, detainees may not have had prompt or regular access to legal counsel — they may have been unaware of the law; security forces may have ignored the entitlement to counsel; or the practice of seeking formal legal counsel was not a cultural norm. Authorities denied some detainees visits by family members during the year. Families sometimes did not know the whereabouts of detained relatives. Incommunicado detention was a problem. The extent to which authorities failed to protect due process in the criminal justice system was unclear. *\

In most cases the law permits detention of no more than two months, but in exceptional cases it may be extended to one year with approval of the prosecutor general. For minor crimes a much shorter investigation period applies. Consistent with recent trends, authorities rarely exceeded legal limits for pretrial detention. In the past, chronic corruption and cumbersome bureaucratic processes contributed to lengthy trial delays; however, the government’s anticorruption efforts and the establishment of the Academy of State Service to improve state employees’ qualifications generally eliminated such delays. Forced confessions also played a part in the reduction of time in pretrial detention. *\

Trial Procedures in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The law provides for due process for defendants, including a public trial; access to accusatory material; the right to call witnesses; the right to a defense attorney, including a court-appointed lawyer if the defendant cannot afford one; and the right to represent oneself in court; however, authorities often denied these rights. Defendants frequently did not enjoy a presumption of innocence. There is no jury system. The government permits the public to attend most trials, but it closed some, especially those considered politically sensitive. There were few independent lawyers available to represent defendants. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

The criminal procedure code provides that defendants be present at their trials and consult with their attorneys in a timely manner. The law sets no restrictions on a defendant’s access to an attorney. The court at times did not allow defendants to confront or question a witness against them and denied defendants and their attorneys access to government evidence. In some cases courts refused to accept exculpatory evidence provided by defense attorneys, even if that evidence might have changed the outcome of the trial. Courts did not offer Russian-speaking defendants a court interpreter. *\

“Even when the courts observed due process, the authority of the government prosecutor far exceeded that of the defense attorney, making it difficult for the defendant to receive a fair trial. Court transcripts frequently were flawed or incomplete, especially when there was a need to translate defendants’ testimony from Russian to Turkmen. Defendants could appeal a lower court’s decision and petition the president for clemency. There were credible reports that judges and prosecutors often predetermined the outcome of the trial and sentence.” *\

Internal Security Forces in Turkmenistan

The criminal justice system of Turkmenistan essentially retains the structure of the Soviet system. The Ministry of National Security (MNB, or KNB) is a successor to the Soviet- era Committee for State Security (KGB). has most of the same functions as the KGB. The chief responsibility of security forces is to ensure that the government remains in power, using whatever social controls and repressive measures are necessary. The Ministry of Internal Affairs directs the operations of police departments, which cooperate closely with the forces of the Ministry of National Security on matters determined to affect national security. Personnel numbers for the police and security forces are not known. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

The criminal justice system of Turkmenistan is deeply rooted in Soviet institutions and practices. Its Committee for National Security, headed by chairman Saparmurad Seidov, retains essentially the same functions, operations, and personnel of the Soviet-era KGB. As it did in the Soviet period, the Ministry of Internal Affairs continues to direct the operations of police departments and to work closely with the Committee for National Security on matters of national security. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

At the national level, the primary security concerns are prevention of trafficking in drugs and other illegal commodities, and combatting organized and international crime. In December 1994, Turkmenistan's Committee for National Security and the Russian Federation's Foreign Intelligence Service (a successor agency to the KGB) signed a five-year agreement for cooperation in state security and mutual protection of the political, economic, and technological interests of the two states. *

Police in Turkmenistan

The Ministry of Internal Affairs administers the regular police, working closely with the Committee for National Security in matters of national security. Criminal investigation under procurator's offices, not regular police, who have only routine functions. As in Soviet system, procurators investigate and prosecute crimes. Rule of law hampered by judiciary's subordinate position to executive branch and lack of independent judicial tradition. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The national police force, estimated to include 25,000 personnel, is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The force is located in cities and settlements throughout the country, with garrisons in Ashgabat, Gyzylarbat, and Dashhowuz. Police departments do not have an investigative function in Turkmenistan; that role is filled by the procurator's offices in Ashgabat and other cities (see Justice System). The police role is confined to routine maintenance of public order and to certain administrative tasks such as controlling the internal passport regime, issuing visas for foreign travel, and registering foreign guests. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “Another inconvenient feature of most tyrannies: roadblocks. These were installed throughout all Turkmen cities and every few miles on the roads leading out of those cities. On an eight-mile journey to see some ruins, I was stopped three times by well-armed men in spiffy uniforms who didn’t have the slightest notion of what to do with the cars they stopped. They examined papers, they looked into back seats, they scowled and shouldered their rifles, but really they were foxed.” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The Ministry of Interior directs the criminal police, who work closely with the Ministry of National Security on matters of national security. The security ministry plays a role in personnel changes in other ministries and enforces presidential decrees. Both the security ministry and criminal police operated with impunity. No information was available on whether the presidential commission created in 2007 to review citizens’ complaints of abuse conducted any inquiries that resulted in accountability of any members of the security forces for abuses. There was no national strategy to reform the police or security apparatus. In August, however, law enforcement officials participated in an OSCE seminar on international standards in criminal law and protecting victims of crime. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

See Human Rights

Prisons in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Official data on the average sentence or numbers of prisoners, including incarcerated juveniles, were not available. According to a 2011 report submitted to the UN Convention Against Torture by Turkmenistan’s Independent Lawyers Association and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, the total prison capacity in the penal colonies and prisons was 8,100 inmates. According to an article by the Union of Independent Journalists of Central Asia, the inmate population totaled 30,568 persons in 2013. This figure may not have included detainees kept in pretrial detention facilities, police-run temporary holding facilities, occupational-therapy rehabilitation centers, and the military penal battalion. Persons in pretrial detention facilities were predominantly individuals who had been sentenced but not transferred to penal colonies. The six pretrial detention facilities reportedly were designed for 1,120 persons, but they likely housed many times that number. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

Authorities typically incarcerated men and women in separate facilities. The number of facilities for female prisoners and detainees was not available, but there were approximately 2,000 female prisoners held at the women’s correctional facility in Dashoguz, reportedly built for 2,500 prisoners. The BLD-4 pretrial detention facility in Balkan Province under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry reportedly housed adults and juveniles and accommodated approximately 800 persons. This number included individuals in pretrial detention, on remand, and those already convicted but not transferred to penal colonies. A juvenile correctional facility in Bayramali had the capacity to hold 142 boys, although international organizations reported the facility held an average of 40 to 50 boys at any time. Authorities reportedly kept girls in a ward of the DZK-8 facility separate from adult female inmates. *\

Prison Conditions in Turkmenistan

Prison riots in 1996 revealed that prison administration is corrupt and that conditions are overcrowded and squalid. According to the U.S. Department of State: “Prison conditions were unsanitary, overcrowded, harsh, and life threatening. Some facilities, such as minimum security camp LBK-12 in Lebap Province, were in areas where inmates experienced extremely harsh climate conditions, with excessive heat in summer and frigid temperatures in winter. There were unconfirmed reports of physical abuse of prisoners by prison officials and other prisoners. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

Diseases, particularly tuberculosis (TB), were widespread. There were some reports that due to overcrowding officials held inmates diagnosed with TB and skin diseases with healthy detainees, contributing to the spread of disease. Nonetheless, a representative of an international organization reported that at least in and around Ashgabat, authorities held inmates with TB separately from healthy detainees. There continued to be concerns that the government did not adequately test and treat prisoners with TB before they returned to the general population, but the government claimed that it did so. The government reported that it transferred prisoners diagnosed with TB to a special Ministry of Interior hospital in Mary Province for treatment and arranged for continuing treatment for released prisoners at their residences. *\

The nutritional value of prison food was poor, and prisoners suffered from malnutrition. Prisoners depended on relatives to supplement inadequate prison food. Some family members and inmates stated prison officials occasionally confiscated food parcels. It was not possible to determine whether potable water was available. *\

According to relatives, prison authorities denied food, medical, and other supplies brought by family members to some prisoners and sometimes denied them access to prisoners. The government allowed foreign diplomats to access nationals of their countries in detention facing criminal charges. The government did not provide information on prison recordkeeping, whether prisoners were permitted religious observance, or on systematic monitoring of prison and detention center conditions. Alternatives to sentencing for nonviolent offenders included suspended sentences, fines, and garnishment of wages. It was not known whether a prison ombudsman existed. *\

In March 2013, law enforcement officials participated in an OSCE-organized study tour to London on prison management practices. In November officials participated in a five-day training organized by the OSCE on international standards on the rights and treatment of prisoners. There were reports that treatment of prisoners and food quality improved in correctional facilities in Ahal, Lebap, and Mary provinces. In 2013 the government opened a new 2,500-person correctional facility for females in Dashoguz, which included medical clinics, a maternity ward, recreational facilities, and centralized heating and cooling systems. The facility also included a workshop for making prison uniforms, and inmates reportedly are paid for their labor. In 2013 the government amended its criminal code to allow prisoners who work to receive government benefits, extra rations, and state pensions. *\

Prisoner Amnesties in Turkmenistan

Amnesty: On February 19 2013, the government pardoned 859 prisoners in honor of Flag Day. Another 2,194 prisoners received amnesty in connection with the May 18 Constitution Day holiday. In July the government pardoned 1,104 prisoners on the occasion of the Night of Omnipotence holiday. President Berdimuhamedov granted amnesty to prisoners in October in connection with the Independence Day holiday; there were reports that approximately 1,300 prisoners were released, but the exact number was not known. An additional 602 prisoners received amnesty in December on the occasion of the Neutrality Day holiday. Prisoners convicted on drug or weapons charges are not eligible for amnesty, but there are no restrictions on pardons, which are treated separately. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

Turkmenistan amnesties usually occur before Muslim holidays. Bruce Pannier of Radio Free Europe wrote: “Prisoner amnesties became an annual event under Niyazov. Sometimes, there are several during the course of a year, as in 1999, when there were at least four. The number of prisoners freed varies — from only a handful to up to 10,000 offenders. The majority of those eligible for these prisoner amnesties are petty felons. Many citizens do not welcome the amnesties, which are usually followed by a rise in crime. [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, October 9, 2007 ^^^]

“While little is known about life inside Turkmen prisons, no educational programs are offered that could teach prisoners a vocation so they could find employment once released from custody. Job opportunities for those released are few, and many of the freed inmates are in poor health. A resident of Balkan Province described the condition of many of the released inmates to Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service. "Nobody takes care of them, [and] they are not offered any jobs because the number of people released from prisons is huge," he said. ^^^

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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.

Last updated April 2016

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