Turkmenistan Disappearances: No News is Very Bad News
Since Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991, all forms of dissent have completely been repressed. Throughout the 2000s, Turkmenistan’s first president, dictator Saparmurat Niyazov (also known by the name he gave himself, Turkmenbashi—father of the Turkmen), used fabricated criminal cases, confessions obtained through torture, closed court hearings, and long term imprisonment in secret prisons to silence dozens of dissidents, independent journalists, and civil society leaders.
In 2002, in response to a supposed coup-attempt, Niyazov rounded up much of the political opposition, as well as members of their families and their friends, and imprisoned them without proper trials. Other political critics were arrested at that time based on charges of corruption. In at least one case of secret imprisonment, the charges are not known.
Once imprisoned, all information about the fates of these journalists and activists has been withheld from their families and the public. No family visits have been permitted, no correspondence with the outside world allowed, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has not been given access to the prisons for monitoring.
One family member received notice in 2012 that a relative had been resentenced to another prison term, and in a speech at Columbia in 2007, current Turkmenistan president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov suggested that at least some prisoners were still alive. Yet the families remain in the dark. Some families have been waiting for nearly 15 years for information about whether their loved ones are dead or alive, and if dead, how they died.
Disappearances continue to the present day under President Berdymukhamedov, who took office in 2007. In July 2015, journalist Saparmamed Nepeskuliev was detained, held incommunicado, and convicted in a closed trial on drug charges. He has not been heard from since September 2015. Prior to his arrest, in a resort town of billion dollar developments—minus any tourists—Nepeskuliev was reporting on economic development, infrastructure, and government incompetence in the region.
In 2013 several human rights organizations came together and jointly began calling for information related to 87 disappeared prisoners documented in a report. The disappeared include Guvanch Djumaev, a supporter of democratic reforms who published a newspaper called Contact that was closed due to its “excessive” free-thinking, and Tagandurdy Khallyev, a former deputy of the parliament. Both were charged with crimes associated with the alleged assassination attempt on the president.
The Turkmenistan government’s wall of silence continues to stand even as the United States and other western nations such as Germany have indicated a renewed interest in the region. Western interest stems from the need to counter Russian influence in Central Asia generally, as well as the need for an alternative to Russian-controlled routes for hydrocarbon exports from Turkmenistan specifically.
Mukhamedov visited Berlin last month to meet with Angela Merkel. Germany is Turkmenistan’s largest trading partner. After the meeting, Merkel announced that President Berdymukhamedov agreed to allow foreign diplomats to visit Turkemistan’s prisons, and would create a position of human rights ombudsman. Yet no benchmark or deadline for these actions was discussed.
The United States has stepped up its interest in Central Asia. Secretary Kerry initiated the C5+1 program in late 2015, and met with the foreign ministers of all five states, including Turkmenistan, in August 2016. The program aims to improve economic development in the region to combat corruption, and to combat terrorism and increase regional security. As the United States has recognized, to accomplish these goals, Turkmenistan must also grapple with the severe human rights violations, like disappearances, that have plagued the region for the past decade or more.
The United States should not avoid the difficult discussions that will improve human rights standards in the region. Human rights protection lies at the core of its other C5+1 goals: improving economic outlook and level of security in the region. If Central Asian countries fail to expand civil liberties and rights protection in coming years, their economic development and counter-terror goals will also fail.
As Merkel’s elicitation of promises from Berdymukhamedov demonstrates, progress is possible. The region needs the presence of the United States to balance out Russia and China, and needs the opportunities for investment and connection that the United States can provide. The United States should pressure Turkmenistan to release information about its political prisoners and increase human rights protections.