Human Rights Watch, has called Turkmenistan "one of the world’s most repressive countries." Its prisons are badly overcrowded, and disease, particularly tuberculosis, is rampant. Detainees and prisoners frequently are tortured. Authorities do not grant permits for public assemblies. In 2003 a new law required that all associations register with the Ministry of Justice. That law also prohibits the operation of unregistered public associations and requires that all foreign assistance be registered with the Ministry of Justice. In 2003 a new law on religion added restrictions on religious practice and criminalized unregistered religious activity. Even before the new law, only Islam and Russian Orthodoxy had status as registered religions. During the Niyazov regime, all Muslim religious ceremonies were obligated to recognize Niyazov and quote from his spiritual code, Ruhnama, which had equal status with the Quran. Raids have shut down worship services of Protestant groups, Shia Muslims, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Bah’ai Muslims, Jews, and other groups. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

Due process, nominally guaranteed by the constitution, rarely is observed, and few defense lawyers are available. No warrant is required for an arrest. In 2002 a wave of political repression, including further negligence with regard to fair-trial standards, followed an alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov. In 2003 a new treason law interpreted a wide variety of activities as punishable by life in prison. The state controls publishing and broadcasting licenses, and the Niyazov administration is the sole source of information about government activity. In 2004 two new monitoring agencies further extended government media control, and journalists have been arrested or beaten. **

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Although the constitution declares Turkmenistan to be a secular democracy and a presidential republic, the country has an authoritarian government controlled by the president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, and the Democratic Party. Berdimuhamedov remained president following a February 2012 election that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights determined involved limited choice between competing political alternatives. Authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

The most important human rights problems were arbitrary arrest; torture; and disregard for civil liberties, including restrictions on freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and movement; and citizens' inability to change the government through free and fair elections. Other continuing human rights problems included denial of due process and fair trial; arbitrary interference with privacy, home, and correspondence; discrimination and violence against women; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on the free association of workers. Officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government acted with impunity. There were no reported prosecutions of government officials for human rights abuses.

Lucy Ash of the BBC wrote: “Informants from the MNB (the KGB's successor organisation) infiltrate all levels of society. Those who seek to dissent were punished by torture, imprisonment, house arrest, surveillance and incarceration in psychiatric facilities. Understandably, most Turkmens tried to keep their heads down and avoid all contact with foreigners. On the bright side there were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings and there were no reports of disappearances or politically motivated abductions. [Source:Lucy Ash, BBC, December 21, 2006 /]

Turkmenistan has been the subject of numerous resolutions by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. It doesn’t allow Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or other human rights groups to visit. It has also turned away the International Committee of the Red Cross and at least 10 United Nations initiatives. [Source: Emily Albert, Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2012]

Human Rights Under Niyazov

Under Niyzov, political opponents and religious minorities were persecuted. Opposition leaders were closely watched, harassed, assaulted, arrested, and sent to mental hospitals and labor camps. Their families were also harassed. Some said Niyazov wasn’t as bad as some claimed. There were fewer political prisoners in Turkmenistan than in other Central Asian countries. A group called the “Ashgabat Eight” that was imprisoned in 1995 for leading demonstrations to protest unpaid wages was released in 1998 due to international pressure. For the most part, human rights issues didn’t get in the way of attracting foreign governments and companies to develop Turkmenistan’s oil and natural gas wealth.

Niyazov stated his support for the democratic ideal of a multiparty system and of protection of human rights, with the caveat that such rights protect stability, order, and social harmony. While acknowledging that his cult of personality resembles that of Soviet dictator Joseph V. Stalin, Niyazov claims that a strong leader is needed to guide the republic through its transition from communism to a democratic form of government. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Although the Niyazov government has received consistent criticism from foreign governments and international organizations for its restrictive policies toward opposition groups, in general the government has not taken extreme steps against its political opposition. In 1993 no political prisoners, political executions, or instances of torture or other inhumane treatment were reported. The government has made conscious efforts to protect equal rights and opportunities for groups of citizens it considers benign. Such measures have been applied especially in safeguarding the security of Russian residents, who receive special attention because they offer a considerable body of technical and professional expertise. *

Nevertheless, government control of the media has been quite effective in suppressing domestic criticism of the Niyazov regime. In addition, members of opposition groups suffer harassment in the form of dismissal from jobs, evictions, unwarranted detentions, and denial of travel papers. Their rights to privacy are violated through telephone tapping, electronic eavesdropping, reading of mail, and surveillance. United States officials have protested human rights violations by refusing to sign aid agreements with Turkmenistan and by advising against economic aid and cooperation. *

Views of an Exiled Turkmenistani Dissident

Exiled dissident Farid Tukhbatullin wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “I'm from Turkmenistan, although I'm forced to live in exile because I do not share the views of the Turkmen authorities. While there are many more dissidents in my country, few are able to leave. That's because people who dare to dissent end up either in psychiatric hospitals or in prison, for many years. I was one of the lucky few - I was released after three and a half months, thanks to international intervention. [Source: Farid Tukhbatullin, International Herald Tribune, April 5, 2006. Farid Tukhbatullin is the director of the Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights ~]

“It's the law of the land in Turkmenistan that attempting to "sow doubt about the foreign and domestic policies of the one and eternal President of Turkmenistan, the Great Saparmurat Niazov, Father of the Turkmen People," is treason, and is punishable by up to life imprisonment. I was in prison with people doing time for this "crime." I know that many of them were tortured, and that the conditions they endure now are even worse than when I met them back in 2003. These people are not permitted to correspond with their loved ones, who have been fired from their jobs or kicked out of school. Many people have no idea where their relatives are. The Turkmen government has refused to allow prison visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Clearly, it has a lot to hide. ~

“I grew up in Soviet Turkmenistan, and what's different about today's one- party system is the pervasiveness of Niazov's cult of personality. There's a joke that there are three types of people in my country - those who were in prison, those now in prison, and those about to get thrown into prison. It doesn't seem to be far from the truth. There is no freedom of expression. Many people have been thrown in prison because of their religious beliefs. I worry about my friends' and relatives' children, whose education will end at ninth grade because the government cut public education, and I worry about my parents, because Niazov has threatened to eliminate pensions. ~

“For people in Turkmenistan the only hope is in international organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They believe that international pressure on the Turkmen dictatorship will somehow lighten their burden. They hope, as I do, that these organizations will stand up to this dictatorship, and defend people's fundamental freedoms. ~

Text Sources: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last Updated March 2022

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