© Crown copyright 2015
This publication is licensed under the terms of the Open Government Licence v3.0 except where otherwise stated. To view this licence, visit nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3 or write to the Information Policy Team, The National Archives, Kew, London TW9 4DU, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where we have identified any third party copyright information you will need to obtain permission from the copyright holders concerned.
This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/turkmenistan-country-of-concern/turkmenistan-country-of-concern
We continue to have significant concerns about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan. Although Turkmenistan is a signatory to most international human rights instruments, and has a constitution and laws which provide for the protection of those rights, its record in implementing these rights is poor. There is little independent media and internet access is limited. Corruption and lack of transparency are serious and widespread problems. Despite the arrival of a new party on the political stage, Turkmenistan has made limited progress towards a pluralistic political system. Torture, degrading treatment, and lack of freedom of assembly and association were all areas of concern noted by the UN Human Rights Committee in March 2012. There has been little progress since then.
Our objectives for 2013 were: to use high-level engagement to encourage progress on human rights; to participate fully in Turkmenistan’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR); and to support a further round of the EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue.
Human rights were raised by Senior Minister of State, Baroness Warsi, when she visited Turkmenistan in June. She discussed the UK’s readiness to work with Turkmenistan on reform, and the need to implement real change in areas such as democratic values, freedoms of the media and of association, and the role of international human rights monitoring mechanisms. The Turkmen authorities continue to espouse a policy of gradual reform, but we were able to work with them through the UN Development Programme (UNDP) on projects to encourage faster political and human rights reform. The programme has yet to deliver radical change on the ground, but provides a clear and practical framework for future improvements. We and others have also raised a small number of individual cases of concern.
Turkmenistan participated fully in its second UPR in April. In its interventions, the UK called for: greater freedom of expression in the media, including by allowing access to social networking and other blocked sites, and by ensuring that national and foreign journalists can operate without fear of harassment; progress towards a more pluralistic society; a more substantive programme of cooperation on access by independent organisations, including by Special Rapporteurs; and progress on UN recommendations on freedom of religion or belief. We urged Turkmenistan to address the gap between law and practice, called for improved engagement with UN special procedures, and also expressed concern at political imprisonments and restrictions.
In total Turkmenistan received 188 recommendations of which it accepted 168, including those from the UK on greater freedom of expression and creating space for multi-party elections. The UK acknowledges Turkmenistan’s constructive approach to the review and we will continue to encourage full implementation of the recommendations in accordance with Turkmenistan’s international commitments. The UK is working through the UNDP on a project to increase understanding in Turkmenistan about international human rights standards and mechanisms by means of a substantive National Human Rights Action Plan, which will cover many of the areas raised in the UPR.
After a gap of nearly two years, the fifth round of the EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue took place in Ashgabat in May. Discussions focused on judicial reform (including prison conditions), national institutions for the protection of human rights, civil society development, freedom of expression and media, freedom of religion, the rights of minorities, women and children, and cooperation in international fora. A number of individual cases of concern were also raised. The UK welcomes constructive engagement of this sort and the role it plays in encouraging and supporting further reform in Turkmenistan. As yet, no date has been set for the next round.
In 2014, the UK will continue to use high-level engagement – including through international partners such as the EU, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the UN – to encourage Turkmenistan to do more to meet its international human rights obligations. We will also support human rights and governance related projects, focusing on those areas where we are likely to have the biggest impact. Looking further ahead, we hope that the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017 – the first sizeable event of international standing to take place in Turkmenistan – will serve as a catalyst for greater reform.
Progress towards political pluralism and a genuine opposition has been limited. Parliamentary elections in December offered the electorate a choice of (state-sanctioned) political parties for the first time since independence. A Needs Assessment Mission (NAM) from the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) determined that, despite some improvements, Turkmenistan did not meet OSCE standards for democratic elections, fundamental freedoms continue to be restricted, and the choice between competing political alternatives is limited in the absence of a functioning opposition.
In the circumstances, ODIHR despatched only a small Election Assessment Mission for the election; a first for ODIHR, having previously confined itself only to the deployment of election support teams.
At the OSCE in December, the EU welcomed Turkmenistan’s invitation to ODIHR to assess the election, but noted with concern the shortcomings identified by the NAM. The EU also underlined that “real political competition and genuine political pluralism, which would provide for the functioning of a political opposition, are needed for a truly democratic political system.” At the time of writing, ODIHR’s final report on the election was still awaited.
Freedom of expression and assembly
The media continues to be tightly controlled and dissenting opinion suppressed; for example, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist, Rovshen Yazmuhamedov, was detained for a short time in May on charges that remain unclear. The NGO Freedom House ranks Turkmenistan 196 out of 197 countries in its latest Freedom of the Press index, and Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkmenistan 177 out of the 179 countries it covers. It remains impossible to buy international newspapers or other foreign written media in Turkmenistan. Internet access is under-developed and strictly controlled, with only about 5% of the population having access. The Turkmen government routinely blocks YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. However, satellite dishes capable of receiving Russian, Turkish and other international news and entertainment channels are readily available and widely used. A new mass media law approved by the President in January, which contained positive features and might have moved Turkmenistan closer to fulfilling its international commitments, has had little practical impact.
Despite the existence of legal provisions on the right to freedom of assembly, the authorities rarely allow citizens to exercise that right freely, and public protest is extremely rare.
Human rights defenders
Independent human rights defenders (HRDs) are unable to operate in Turkmenistan and the registration process for NGOs is complex, bureaucratic and subject to arbitrary state assessment. Unregistered NGO activity is punishable by fines, short-term detention and confiscation of property. The authorities have also sought to prevent Turkmen HRDs from attending international human rights and civil society meetings held outside Turkmenistan.
Two human rights activists, Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapadurdy Hajiev, who were the subjects of regular EU lobbying, were released in February. They had been jailed in 2006, ostensibly on firearms related charges, but HRDs believe their convictions were linked to their involvement in the production of a documentary about Turkmenistan for French television. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that their arrest and detention violated international law.
Access to justice and the rule of law
Corruption and general lack of transparency remain a significant problem in Turkmenistan. Transparency International ranked Turkmenistan 168 out of 177 states surveyed in its Corruption Perceptions Index published on 3 December, a slight improvement on last year.
It remains difficult for individuals to challenge court decisions. We have yet to see evidence of an improvement in sentencing and prison conditions. In one case of note, we welcomed the release on 3 July of the former Minister of Culture, Geldimurat Nurmuhammedov, who was detained in October 2012 on drug charges. The EU, US and OSCE argued that his detention appeared to have been politically motivated.
We will continue to raise with the Turkmen authorities the importance of the rule of law, including lobbying on individual cases where appropriate.
We continue to have concerns about reports that security officials have used excessive force, including beating, when extracting confessions from detainees. It remains difficult to make a fully accurate assessment of the treatment of prisoners and other detainees while international bodies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are denied unfettered access to detention facilities in Turkmenistan. We are encouraged, therefore, that in July and September the Turkmen government held discussions with the ICRC on the prospects for enhanced cooperation, including in the application of international humanitarian law, the establishment and development of relations between the ICRC and academic institutions in Turkmenistan, and the practical implementation of international human rights instruments. We also welcome Turkmenistan’s undertaking in the context of its UPR to sign and ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, and to continue efforts to improve the situation of detainees.
Prison conditions on the whole are unsanitary, overcrowded and unsafe. Some facilities are located in areas of extremely harsh climate conditions. The nutritional value of prison food is poor. The Turkmen government has declared its intention to modernise existing penitentiary facilities and build new ones according to international standards. We understand that new and more modern detention facilities have already been built in the northern town of Dashoguz. Overall, however, much more progress needs to be made on all of these issues. The UK will continue to encourage the Turkmen authorities to allow full and independent access to detention facilities and individual prisoners, including by UN Special Rapporteurs.
Freedom of religion or belief
Although the Constitution of Turkmenistan does not prescribe a state religion and provides for religious freedom, religion is largely government-controlled, and some groups are subject to harassment. Any religious organisation wishing to operate there must register with the authorities, but bureaucratic and other hurdles make obtaining registration difficult. Even those organisations that have registered can find it difficult to operate, due to government constraints on opening new premises and the size of services. Turkmen law prohibits proselytising and the publication of religious literature. The importation of any religious publication has to be approved by the Council of Religious Affairs, and such approvals are difficult to obtain. Individuals and religious communities still experience administrative restrictions or various other forms of harassment.
We flagged in last year’s report incidents of undue pressure against certain religious communities in Turkmenistan, including credible reports that Jehovah’s Witnesses faced unwarranted pressure from local authorities. We received further such reports early in the year of harassment, which included interrogation by officials over religious activity and the confiscation of religious literature, and some cases of detention affecting other religious communities such as Protestants in Turkmenistan’s Lebap region. As a result, UK and EU partners in Ashgabat raised the issue with the Turkmen authorities, underlining the need to respect fundamental and universal values of freedom of thought, conscience and belief, and the importance of Turkmenistan abiding by its international commitments and obligations.
A cultural bias against reporting or acknowledging rape and domestic violence makes determining the extent of these problems in Turkmenistan difficult. At Turkmenistan’s UPR, a number of states urged that the rights of women be strengthened in both law and practice. OSCE has taken steps to tackle the issue, including support for an NGO Keik Okara to open a shelter for victims of domestic violence, the operation of a domestic violence hotline and the provision of free legal consultations and psychological assistance to victims of domestic violence. OSCE also organises seminars to raise awareness on women’s rights among law enforcement officials in Turkmenistan, including one in Ashgabat in July. That event focused on women’s security issues (including migration), domestic and other violence against women, as well as mechanisms to address women’s security needs. The UK will look for opportunities to support this work in the coming year.
As a result of legal and other measures designed to reinforce Turkmenistan’s national identity, some minority groups within the country (particularly ethnic Uzbeks and Russians) find it difficult to preserve their national and linguistic identity and exercise freedom of travel, as a result of bureaucratic obstacles relating to those holding dual nationality. Despite a legal framework which provides for equal rights and freedoms for all citizens, Turkmen citizens belonging to ethnic minorities are mostly excluded from government jobs even if they speak Turkmen. A presidential decree requires that at least 70% of personnel employed by an organisation have to be Turkmen. However, Turkmenistan has undertaken, in the context of its recent UPR, to consider ratifying the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families.
Male homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment (from two to 20 years). Female homosexuality is not mentioned in the Criminal Code. Although provisions concerning homosexuality are rarely applied, homophobia is widespread, and homosexuals hide their sexual orientation to avoid discrimination. Despite encouragement to the contrary, Turkmenistan refused in the context of its latest UPR to decriminalise sexual relations between consenting adults of the same sex.
This publication is part of the 2013 Human Rights and Democracy Report.
Give your comments and questions about the report
Invite others to read and comment on the report
We want to encourage discussion of this report and our human rights work, so if you have a blog or website, please add a link from your site through to the sections you are interested in.
Keep up-to-date with FCO’s human rights work
You can follow us on our human rights Twitter channel @FCOHumanRights, and subscribe to receive our human rights news via email. You can also find detailed information on our human rights work on other areas of this website. In addition, you can also listen to or subscribe to our human rights podcasts via RSS or iTunes.
For the countries of concern featured in this report, we will provide updates every quarter so you can follow human rights developments in these countries, and see what actions the UK is taking. These updates will appear on GOV.UK.