Over the weekend, Turkmenistan granted amnesty to more than 1,200 prisoners. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov reportedly said that the mass pardon was “guided by the traditions of charity and humanity that belonged to our ancestors.”
According to AFP, which cites Turkmen state media, 1,202 Turkmen citizens and 13 foreign nationals were released. There was no specific information about the foreign citizens, though AFP comments that they were likely from neighboring countries and arrested on drug trafficking charges.
The mass amnesty and prisoner release comes at an auspicious time — just before the country’s Constitution Day and immediately after Berdimuhamedov returned from Europe. In Europe, Berdimuhamedov met with the presidents of Austria and Slovenia, and also leaders of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Although focus was almost entirely on energy, Austrian President Heinz Fischer did say that he brought up the topic of human rights in the course of his discussions with the Turkmen president.
It is tempting to link the discussion of human rights between Fischer and Berdimuhamedov to the release. Ahead of the visit, Human Rights Watch urged Fischer to push Berdimuhamedov specifically on the issue of disappeared persons. Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in the group’s statement that “Fischer should not miss this chance to urge Turkmenistan’s president to clarify the fate and whereabouts of dozens of people arrested in the early 2000s who have been forcibly disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prison system.”
Media, however, was not allowed to ask the Turkmen president questions and there is no telling specifically what Fischer discussed with Berdimuhamedov.
One thing is certain: it is naive to link too strongly Berdimuhamedov’s Europe trip to the release. Such mass prisoner pardons are routine and don’t indicate much needed reforms in the Turkmen justice system. In 2012, for example, 1,000 prisoners were released, also on Constitution Day. State media at the time used the exact same phrasing in saying that the pardoned prisoners had “sincerely repented for their deeds.”
In February 2013, an unstated number of prisoners were pardoned in conjunction with Flag Day celebrations. Among those released were a pair of civil society activists who had served seven year sentences for what HRW called “bogus weapons charges,” and a pair of singers who had served five and seven years on equally murky charges.
In October 2014 Berdimuhamedov apparently signed a decree “on amnesty of sentenced persons in honor of the 23rd anniversary of Turkmenistan’s independence.”
Turkmenistan places low on rankings for human rights, press freedom, religious freedom, rule of law, and more. The routine release of prisoners highlights the arbitrary nature of justice in the country. A 2011 report compiled by the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and the Turkmenistan Independent Lawyers Association said that in 2009 the inmate population in the country totaled more than 26,500. A 2014 HRW report noted that “the actual number of those jailed on political grounds is impossible to determine because the justice system lacks transparency, trials are closed in political cases, and the overall level of repression precludes independent monitoring of these cases.”
U.S. State Department, also in 2014 report, noted that the three most important human rights violations in Turkmenistan “were arbitrary arrest; torture; and disregard for civil liberties, including restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and movement.”