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. [Source:Lucy Ash, BBC, December 21, 2006 */*]

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.

The Turkmenistan Project in the Open Society Institute.

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. *

Human Rights Groups and NGOs in Turkmenistan

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]

According to the U.S. Department of State: “There were no domestic human rights NGOs due to the government’s refusal to register such organizations and restrictions that made activity by unregistered organizations illegal. The government continued to monitor the activities of nonpolitical social and cultural organizations. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: There were no international human rights NGOs with a permanent presence in the country, although the government permitted international organizations, including the OSCE and UNHCR, to have resident missions. The government permitted the OSCE to conduct workshops and study tours on prisoners' rights, women's rights, religious freedom, good governance, and media freedom. The government collaborated with the IOM and UNHCR on migration and statelessness issues, and with the UN Development Program (UNDP) on raising awareness and improving access to information on human rights. Government restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, and association severely restricted international organizations' ability to investigate, understand, and fully evaluate the government's human rights policies and practices. \*\

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government-run National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, established in 1996 with a mandate to support democratization and monitor the protection of human rights, was not an independent body. Its ability to obtain redress for citizens was limited. Nonetheless, it played an unofficial ombudsman’s role in resolving some petitions citizens submitted through the institute’s complaints committee. The Interagency Commission on Enforcing Turkmenistan’s International Obligations on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law meets biannually to coordinate the implementation of a limited number of recommendations from international human rights bodies. In 2005 then president Niyazov established the parliamentary Committee on the Protection of Human Rights and Liberties to oversee human rights-related legislation. \*\

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. *~*

Freedoms of Speech, Association and Assembly in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “ The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government did not respect these rights. The law requires political parties to allow representatives of the Central Election Committee and Ministry of Justice to monitor their meetings. The government also warned critics against speaking with visiting journalists or other foreigners about human rights problems. The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. During the year authorities neither granted the required permits for public meetings and demonstrations nor allowed unregistered organizations to hold demonstrations. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of association, the government restricted this right. The law requires all NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice and all foreign assistance to be coordinated through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Unregistered NGO activity is punishable by a fine, short-term detention, and confiscation of property. \*\

Of the estimated 112 registered NGOs, international organizations recognized only a few as independent. NGOs reported the government presented a number of administrative obstacles to NGOs that attempted to register. Authorities reportedly rejected some applications repeatedly on technical grounds. In October the government reported that during the year it had registered three NGOs whose primary focus was sports and leisure activities. Some organizations awaiting registration found alternate ways to carry out activities, such as registering as businesses or subsidiaries of other registered groups, but others temporarily suspended or limited their activities. Although the law states that there is a process for registering foreign assistance, NGOs were unable to register bilateral foreign assistance, due to a 2013 decree requiring such registration. \*\

Sources noted a number of barriers to the formation and functioning of civil society. These included regulations that permitted the Ministry of Justice to send representatives to association events and meetings and requirements that associations notify the government about their planned activities. A May NGO law no longer requires founders of associations to be citizens and reduced to 400 the number of members national associations must have in order to register. The law also permits NGOs to fundraise and nominate candidates for elected office, and it allows establishment of foreign NGOs. \*\

Freedom of Religion in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The government approves the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics and requires senior clerics to report regularly to the CRA. Some Muslims expressed concern about the quality of training and changes of appointed Muslim leaders. The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups are financed independently, and the government is not involved with the appointment of their leadership. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Turkmenistan, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

Religious groups seldom received permission from the the government-controlled Council of Religious Affairs (CRA) to import religious literature. Minority religious groups stated they were disadvantaged in importing religious materials because they had no representation on the CRA. The government reportedly prohibited all religious groups from subscribing to foreign publications. The CRA required that its officials stamp all religious literature, including Bibles and Qurans, to authorize each copy of the text. *^* While the Quran was practically unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, most homes retained one copy in Arabic or a Russian translation from the Soviet-era. Few translations were available in Turkmen. Some citizens reported the seizure of personal Bibles at the airport upon arrival from foreign travel, even though the Bibles had been in their possession when they departed the country. *^*

There were no reports of travel restrictions for religious study abroad or to attend religious conferences. In November the government reported that individuals do not need to obtain special permission for religious study abroad. There was one report that education officials threatened university students with expulsion if they attended services at mosques. Although individuals and religious groups were fined for unauthorized religious practices, there were no reports of officials being fined for abusing religious freedom, and observers noted it was unlikely such fines would be levied against any agents of the state.*^*

Authorities required some registered religious groups to obtain approval to carry out religious activities. In September 2014, the MOJ launched a new website that made information on the Law on Religion more publicly available, including information on registration procedures for religious organizations. The government also participated in training events on international religious freedom, published information on registration procedures for religious groups, and reportedly continued to allow self-funded pilgrims to participate in the Hajj.*^*

See Religion

Harassment of Religious Groups in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Some groups reported difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to carry out religious activities such as Bible camps. Some groups stated that by routinely notifying the government of their gatherings and events and inviting government representatives to attend, they generally avoided government harassment. Nevertheless, in June authorities in the city of Mary attempted to close a children’s camp organized by a registered Protestant group, even though authorities had been notified in advance of the camp’s establishment. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Turkmenistan, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

Religious groups reported the government and state-affiliated enterprises hindered or prevented some of them from purchasing or obtaining long-term leases for land or buildings for worship or meetings; however, many segments of society experienced obstacles regarding the purchase and leasing of property. Registered religious groups also reported they had difficulty renting special event space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, possibly due to concern about official disapproval. *^*

Some registered religious groups were denied permission to conduct church meetings such as study groups and seminars, although they were able to hold weekly services. The government forbade unregistered religious groups or unregistered branches of registered religious groups from gathering publicly or privately and sometimes broke up such gatherings. Some unregistered congregations continued to practice quietly, mostly in private homes, and were able to do so as long as the neighbors did not complain. *^*

There was no official religious instruction in public schools. Authorities actively enforced existing restrictions on private religious education. Although the government did not officially restrict persons from changing their religious beliefs and affiliation, representatives of religious minorities stated that ethnic Turkmen converts from Islam or who were members of unregistered religious groups were subjected to more scrutiny and questioning than non-ethnic Turkmen. Although it remained illegal to proselytize, some registered groups such as the Bahai community were able to speak about their faith in public without harassment. *^*

Freedom of Press in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is ranked 177th among 179 countries in press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders in 2011 According to the U.S. Department of State: “ The government financed and controlled the publication of books and almost all other print media. A weekly newspaper, Rysgal, continued to operate, although its stories were largely reprints from state media outlets or reflected the views of the state news agency. The government imposed significant restrictions on the importation of foreign newspapers except for the private but government-sanctioned Turkish newspaper Zaman Turkmenistan, which reflected the views of the official state newspapers. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

The government controlled radio and domestic television, but satellite dishes providing access to foreign television programming were widespread throughout the country. Citizens also received international radio programs through satellite access. The government continued its ban on subscriptions to foreign periodicals by nongovernmental entities, although copies of nonpolitical periodicals appeared occasionally in the bazaars. The government maintained a subscription service to Russian-language outlets for government workers, although these publications were not available for public use. Customs officials at Ashgabat Airport reportedly reviewed and confiscated travelers’ books and periodicals. \*\

There were no independent oversight of media accreditation, no defined criteria for allocating press cards, no assured provision for receiving accreditation when space was available, and no protection against the withdrawal of accreditation for political reasons. The government required all foreign correspondents to apply for accreditation. It granted visas to journalists from outside the country only to cover specific events, such as international conferences and summit meetings, where it could monitor their activities. As in previous years, the government required journalists working for state-owned media to obtain permission to cover specific events as well as to publish or broadcast the subject matter they had covered. \*\

At least nine journalists representing foreign media organizations were accredited. The government asserted that there were 39 accredited journalists in the country, although it did not make clear whether these journalists represented foreign media organizations. Turkish news services had eight correspondents in the country, at least four of whom reportedly were accredited. Despite submitting official applications repeatedly over several years, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had not received a response to accredit correspondents. As many as eight correspondents representing foreign media services operated without accreditation. \*\

Censorship in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The law prohibits censorship and provides freedom to gather and disseminate information, but authorities did not fully implement the law. The government continued to censor newspapers and prohibit reporting of opposition political views or of any criticism of the president. Domestic journalists and foreign news correspondents engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

To regulate domestic printing and copying activities, the government required all publishing houses, and printing and photocopying establishments to register their equipment. The government did not allow the publication of works on topics that were out of favor with the government, including some works of fiction. \*\

The 2013 Law on the Mass Media prohibits censorship and provides for the freedom to gather and disseminate information, but the law has not been fully implemented. Government officials and representatives of state media participated in five OSCE training courses on journalism and mass media. \*\

Arrest and Harassment of Journalists in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The government reportedly subjected journalists to surveillance and harassment. There were reports that law enforcement officials harassed and monitored citizen journalists who worked for foreign media outlets, such as by monitoring their telephone conversations and restricting their travel abroad. Visiting foreign journalists reported harassment and denial of freedom of movement when they attempted to report from the country. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

Lucy Ash of the BBC wrote: “Annakurban Amanklychev, who worked with us, is one of them. But he paid a very heavy price. Over the course of three days this summer, Turkmenistan's interior ministry (formerly the local KGB) arrested him along with a handful of other journalists, human rights activists and their relatives.Initially they were accused of spying for the intelligence services of Nato countries. Later the interior ministry simply charged the defendants with illegal possession of firearms and ammunition. According to Amanklychev's family, the security services manufactured their evidence by planting cartridges in his car.The trial took place with no relatives in attendance. Amanklychev and a fellow human rights worker received seven-year sentences. [Source:Lucy Ash, BBC, December 21, 2006 */*]

Ogulsapar Muradova, the correspondent for Radio Free Europe Liberty, was jailed for six years but a fortnight later she was dead. Her children, who were only allowed to see her body after intervention from the US embassy, said she had a deep head wound and marks of strangulation. One leg was broken, and the arms and legs were punctured where injections had been administered. American diplomats took pictures in the morgue but they have not been published. When the arrests took place, a delegation of European parliamentarians were in town discussing a new trade deal - that has now been put on hold but given our appetite for gas, European concerns over human rights may be short-lived.” */*

Freedom of Movement in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan citizens can not leave the country without an exit visa and need an internal passport to move around within the country. The law provides for internal exile, requiring an individual to reside in a certain area for a fixed term of two to five years. According to the U.S. Department of State: “ The constitution and law do not provide for full freedom of movement. The law requires internal passports and residency permits. A requirement for a border permit remained in effect for all foreigners wishing to travel to border areas. Despite legal prohibitions against recognizing dual citizenship, a law adopted in 2013 permits the issuance of Turkmenistani passports to Turkmenistani-Russian citizens, who will not have to renounce their Russian citizenship if they obtained it before 2003. Implementation of the law was inconsistent. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

Foreign Travel: The government continued to bar certain citizens from departing although it denied maintaining a list of persons not permitted to travel abroad. According to Human Rights Watch, on April 10, authorities barred Ruslan Tukhbatullin from flying to Istanbul to visit his brother, Farid Tukhbatullin, the head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. Farid Tukhbatullin has lived in exile in Austria since his 2008 release from prison in Turkmenistan. \*\

A 2005 migration law forbids travel by any citizen who has access to state secrets, has falsified personal information, has committed a serious crime, is under surveillance, might become a trafficking victim, previously has violated the law of the destination country, or whose travel contradicts the interests of national security. Former public sector employees who had access to state secrets were prevented from traveling abroad for five years after terminating their employment with the government. The law allows authorities to forbid recipients of presidential amnesties from traveling abroad for a period of up to two years. The law also allows the government to impose limitations on obtaining education in specific professions and specialties. \*\

Human Trafficking in Turkmenistan

According to the CIA World Factbook: Turkmenistan is a source country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Turkmen in search of work in other countries are forced to work in textile sweatshops, construction, and domestic service, with women and rural inhabitants being the most vulnerable. Some Turkmen women and girls are sex trafficked abroad. Turkey is the primary trafficking destination, followed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and, to a lesser extent, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Cyprus, the UK, Sweden, and the US. Turkmen also experience forced labor domestically in the informal construction industry. Participation in the cotton harvest is still mandatory for some public sector employees [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Turkmenistan does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. However, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government has a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute a significant effort toward meeting the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking. The denial of an internal trafficking problem by some government officials, corruption, and a lack of institutional capacity continued to impede the government’s response to trafficking in 2013. The government reported detailed anti-trafficking law enforcement data for the first time and is making an effort to support anti-trafficking training. The government did not offer services to trafficking victims in 2013 and did not fund NGOs providing care. Authorities punished some victims for crimes committed as a result of being trafficked. =

Treatment of Refugees in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “ While formally there is a system for granting refugee status, it was inactive. In 2009 the government assumed responsibility from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for making refugee status determinations. The UNHCR had observer status at government-run refugee-status determination hearings. Individuals determined not to be refugees by the government have recourse to the UNHCR to obtain mandate refugee status. Mandate refugees are required to renew the UNHCR certificates with the government annually. There were 45 UNHCR mandate refugees. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The country has not granted asylum since 2005. The government asserted that no UNHCR-mandate refugees were expelled or forced to return to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. \*\

Stateless Persons: Citizenship is derived primarily from one’s parents. In March the UNHCR estimated there were 8,320 stateless individuals and persons with indeterminate nationality, although the government did not confirm this number. The number of stateless persons who were also refugees was not available. The requirement that applicants for citizenship prove they are not citizens of another country impeded efforts to establish the nationality of undocumented persons. The government, however, cooperated with the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration to cohost an international conference on statelessness and migration issues and granted citizenship to 786 stateless persons in June. Also in June the government amended its law on migration to allow stateless persons to legally reside in the country and travel internationally with government-issued identification and travel documents. Undocumented stateless individuals did not have access to public benefits, education, or employment opportunities. \*\

Image Sources:

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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