Turkmenistan Weekly Roundup
The UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) issued conclusions regarding Turkmenistan's first -- and very incomplete -- report to this treaty body that reviews the compliance of states with the UN Convention Against Torture. The CAT can go easy on countries that are newly-independent and submitting their reports for the first time since signing the convention. Unsurprisingly, the CAT praised Turkmenistan just for showing up for signing a lot of other UN conventions, and even for making a state commission for citizens’ complaints about law-enforcement agencies
Yet in a dense, 15-page document, the CAT bore down with surprising severity on the absence of facts and figures in the Turkmen government’s report about actual implementation and its failure to answer truthfully about numerous allegations of torture in state institutions. The state report indulged in the usual abstractions and bids for good will by proclamations of having just passed legislation, such as a revised criminal code and code of criminal procedures, which was ostensibly to mitigate torture. Yet these gestures, while welcome, were insufficient for the seasoned CAT experts, who asked for specific information about prosecution of torture and demanded independent review of cases like that of Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev and civil society activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadzhiev.
The CAT demanded that Turkmenistan come up with an explanation of where political prisoners such as former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov have disappeared to, and urged access to independent observers to examine deaths in custody for cases such as that of Ogulsapa Muradova, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), arrested after helping a French film crew with a documentary about past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. The Turkmen delegation, largely staffed with deputies of various ministries and heads of departments for foreign liason, had nothing to say.
The CAT said the Turkmen complaints mechanism was lacking in independence and that there were "serious conflicts of interest" involved in having the prosecutor essentially investigate himself for wrongdoing. Tellingly, despite claims of legislative improvements, no Turkmen official has been prosecuted for having committed torture in the last decade, and only four police were charged with exceeding their authority, a lesser charge. In the experience of CAT, countries that claim they are addressing torture yet have no cases of officials prosecuted to show for it have generally not undergone authentic reforms. As the NGO reports published in advance of the session indicated, there have been countless reports of mistreatment or unexplained deaths, notably in the armed forces, psychiatric hospitals, and in prisons such as the overcrowded women's colony in Dashoguz.
When confronted with the case of the Berdiyevs, a couple who had been arrested repeatedly and sent complaints of torture, and then rearrested again on the eve of a delegation from the European Parliament, the Turkmen delegation at CAT simply claimed a statement validating their case was forged -- without responding to the allegations of torture. The CAT conclusions also included a section on human rights defenders, expressing "serious concerns" about the threats made against Farid Tuhbatullin, exiled Turkmen human rights leader of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and editor of the chrono-tm.org website – concerns which the official delegation denied.
The CAT urged follow-up before the next report (due June 3, 2015) concerning the most severe issues in the conclusions, which included the lack of legal protection for defendants and convicts, the need for independent inspections of places of detention, and investigations into the fate of those who have disappeared or have been held incommunicado.
Follow-up on these serious findings might be expected from the UN offices in Turkmenistan, but that's the last place to look. Among its many press stories, the website "UN in Turkmenistan" does not contain any mention at all of the review of Turkmenistan by the UN Committee Against Torture, or any of its conclusions. Worse, it creates the impression that somehow Turkmenistan is advancing with human rights by reporting in glowing terms on various UN-organized seminars and conferences on human rights, replete with international officials and experts.
For example, there was the inter-ministerial seminar May 20 on "bringing Turkmen legislation into alignment with international law," organized by the ubiquitous Presidential Turkmen Institute for Democracy and Human Rights and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). Then a conference with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on May 6 on stateless persons, and even mention of a trip by a Turkmen delegation to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva May 9-13 to observe the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights -- but no mention of the CAT review that occurred the next week. And then there was even an international conference on May 30 in Ashgabat, organized by the government of Turkmenistan in partnership with the children’s agency UNICEF, in which again, the topic was the garden perennial of "the most appropriate ways to reform juvenile justice systems in line with international and regional standards."
Each of these stories appears with the Russian translation attached in a PDF, yet the CAT conclusions haven't been translated into Russian yet on the UN site.
An official from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Ashgabat right after the CAT session, yet made no press statement about his discussions with the ministries of foreign affairs and justice, and the Turkmen state media carried only an upbeat account of cooperation on legal programs.
Ashgabat also got a high-profile visit last week from Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis, the current chair-in-office of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At least he issued a statement available on the OSCE website about his talks, although they were mainly focused on regional security, tightening up borders, the "constructive political dialogue with Afghanistan's authorities and other stakeholders," and a pet topic of President Berdymukhamedov -- the international legal basis for energy security, i.e. pipelines, a subject Ashgabat has raised at the UN General Assembly and proposes to host a ministerial conference on later this year.
At the very end, Ažubalis mentioned the need to promote and safeguard civil society and the media, as they are "important channels of communications between the authorities and the people, and play a vital role in promoting security," he said. No mention of torture -- and a disturbing inclination to see human rights as a hand-maiden to overarching state security concerns, basically just a safety valve for expressing grievances rather than an essential requirement for real peace.
The Lithuanian minister may have said more -- Radio Svoboda, the Russian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had a brief story quoting the OSCE chair-in-office in which he called for removal for restrictions on NGO registration and activity and stating that there would be no democracy in Turkmenistan until the state established cooperation with civil society activists. But this wasn't included in either the official press release on osce.org, much less the Turkmen state media websites.
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