GENEVA –Today the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva completed its review of the situation in Turkmenistan. The Turkmen delegation, led by Deputy Minister of Justice Meret Taganov, insisted that there is no torture in Turkmenistan and that they have never received complaints.
Turkmenistan, which recently adopted a National Human Rights Action Plan and added some provisions about torture to the Criminal Code, says that no cases of death resulting from torture during custody have been recorded in the country and the government takes effective measures for the prevention of acts of torture and cruel treatment throughout the national territory.
The Turkmen government also highlighted some achievements in its report, like building a new penal colony for women that “fully meets international standards,” according to Ashgabat’s submission to the UN committee. “All female detainees were transferred from the old to the new colony, featuring a total area of 90 hectares and a built area of 120,529 square meters. The State allocated $285,585,000 for the construction of the colony,” the report notes.
The Turkmen delegation assured the committee that civil society members are free to visit prisons and they have even organized a number of visits for International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) representatives to prison facilities. However, according to the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), a human rights NGO based in Vienna, these ICRC visits have only been aimed at familiarizing ICRC delegates with selected detention facilities and sites without any opportunities for proper monitoring.
“The ICRC has yet to be granted unhindered access to the country’s detention facilities, which would enable it to conduct thorough monitoring in correspondence with its basic conditions, including through private discussions with detainees of its choice and repeat visits as often as deemed necessary” says Farid Tuhbatullin, head of TIHR.
Ongoing independent reports on Turkmenistan indicate that people were still being tortured and ill-treated to extract “confessions” and incriminate others. A report about Ovadan Depe prison issued by the International Prove They are Alive campaign – an NGO initiative that focuses on addressing the issue of disappearances in Turkmenistan – describes how detainees are tortured with “long needles and beatings and other methods,” sometimes before inmates have even been convicted. “Beatings are a regular occurrence, sometimes as a mass occurrence, sometimes as an initiation of new inmates, and other times on a whim or an order from above,” the report says. “Sources describe the use of dogs, batons, and subsequent loss of consciousness, damage to the kidneys, and the inability to walk.” Kartsers or cylindrical dark solitary confinement cells are described in the report as “a psychologically and physically impossible form of torture.”
UN experts and NGOs highlighted that Turkmenistan’s justice system lacks independence and transparency and is open to politically motivated abuse as people face closed and unfair trials. Experts raised concrete examples during the Committee meetings. For example, Turkmen freelance journalist Saparmamed Nepeskuliev went missing in the city of Avaza in July 2015 in a connection with a trip he undertook for his journalist work. Only several weeks later did his family find out that he was being held incommunicado by law enforcement authorities on spurious narcotics possession charges. At the end of August 2015, Nepeskuliev was sentenced to three years in prison in a closed trial at a Turkmenbashi court. His family learned about the trial only after it had concluded.
In a 2016 report, the International Prove They are Alive campaign listed close to 90 individuals who have disappeared in national prisons. The authorities never provide information about dozens of individuals who have disappeared in prison following secret trials. Family members have often not received any information about these prisoners for years and do not know whether they are still alive.
Turkmenistan still remains highly repressive toward journalists and human rights activists. Those who challenge government policies will face surveillance, intimidation, arbitrary restrictions on travel abroad, and arrest and imprisonment on trumped-up charges. Even those who have already fled Turkmenistan and now live in exile are in danger and their relatives have been subjected to growing pressure. Farid Tuhbatullin, who runs TIHR and Turkmenistan Chronicles in Vienna, faces constant intimidation and has received serious threats. He was present at the UN Committee discussion. He told The Diplomat that “this kind of UN treaty bodies are not so effective to make pressure on Turkmenistan, but there is no other ways to do that.”
The case of independent journalist Chary Annamuradov was also mentioned by UN experts and NGOs. He obtained refugee status after fleeing Turkmenistan 16 years ago and now lives in Sweden. However, he was arrested in Minsk, Belarus in mid-July 2016 at the request of Turkmen authorities. Thanks to international interventions on his behalf, he was released in mid-September and able to return to Sweden, thus avoiding extradition to Turkmenistan where he would have been at great danger.
According to Ivar Dale, senior adviser at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, all available information from former prisoners indicate that torture is widespread and systematic in Turkmenistan. “The same can be said of the situation surrounding enforced disappearances – people who have been jailed for political reasons, and where their families have to live without knowing anything about their fate, even if they are alive or dead. This is a form of psychological torture against relatives,” Ivar Dale told The Diplomat following the Committee session. “Turkmen authorities insist that human rights are enshrined in laws and in the Constitution, yet everyone knows this is merely on paper. In practice, Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive countries on earth.”
UN expert Felice Gaer asked the Turkmen delegation to guarantee that there will be no repercussions against prisoners mentioned in the UN report, or against relatives of those who have contributed information to the Committee – including Farid Tukhbatullin. However, delegation members have not given concrete responses to all questions during the two-day meeting; they kept referring to articles of different laws. Unfortunately, what is written on paper and what’s going on in real life are not the same.