Under the dictatorship of President Saparmurat Niyazov, the government of Turkmenistan in 1998 continued to deny its citizensnearly every civil and political right. With no political opposition, no freedom of assembly, no opportunity for public debate, and a Soviet-style secret police, very little information on human rights abuses was available. One of the poorest of the former Soviet republics, the Central Asian nation worked to keep human rights off the agenda as it courted foreign investors eager to exploit its untapped natural resources, especially oil and gas. On two occasions, however, international pressure on President Niyazov forced the release of a handful of high-profile political prisoners.
President Niyazov’s visit to the United States in April occasioned ten releases. On the eve of Niyazov’s arrival in the U.S., police detained former foreign minister and dissident Avdy Kuliev in the capital, Ashgabat, as he was attempting to return to Turkmenistan from Moscow after five years in exile. Subsequent pressure from the Clinton administration and others sources led Turkmen officials to release Kuliev and Durdymurat Khoja-Mukhamedov. A leader of the banned Party of Democratic Development of Turkmenistan, Khoja-Mukhamedov had been incarcerated since February 1996 in a psychiatric hospital on medically unjustifiable grounds.
Six of the eight members of a group known as the “Ashgabat Eight” were also freed in April. The eight were imprisoned after an ill-fated march in 1995 to protest wage arrears and the lack of democracy. Begenchmurat Khojaev and Baytr Sakheliev, both imprisoned since 1995 for their alleged participation in the rally, were released the same day; two days later the government released Amanmyrat Amandurdyev, Khudayberdi Amandurdyev, Charymurat Amandurdyev and Kakamurat Nazarov, also members of the “Ashgabat Eight.” Also released were Mukhammetkuli Aimuradov and Khoshali Geraev, convicted in 1995 of anti-state crimes and “attempted terrorism,” for maintaining contact with Turkmen political activists abroad. Both men had been serving time in strict-regime labor camps in the western city of Turkmenbashi.
Unfortunately, Charymurat Gurov, also of the “Ashgabat Eight,” died in custody in January under suspicious circumstances. The government asserted that he died of natural causes (heart aliments and tuberculosis), but according to eyewitness reports his corpse was bruised and bore other evidence of mistreatment and torture. The remaining member of the “Ashgabat Eight,” Gulgeldi Annaniyazov, remained in prison. Mr. Kuliev, who saw Annaniyazov during his own imprisonment in April, reported to Human Rights Watch that the latter was in such poor health that he could barely walk or speak, and that he was extremely thin and pale.
While the government reneged on its promise to release additional political prisoners, the president, did sign an amnesty decree in October freeing women, disabled prisoners, those suffering from tuberculosis, juveniles, war veterans, and male prisoners over the age of sixty. Individuals convicted of murder, rape, terrorism, or drug-related crimes were not included in the amnesty. The decree did not appear to reflect a real change in the government’s policy toward those it deemed a threat; authorities continued to threaten, assault, and imprison perceived opponents. As of this writing, there were no reports of prisoners having been released.
In early September, the Committee for National Security (KNB) arrested former presidential spokesman Durdymuhammend Gurbanov on charges of embezzlement. He was released a week later after some thirty people demonstrated in Ashgabat to demand his release, an extraordinary event. As of September, the government had taken no measures to punish or imprison the demonstrators. In April, Gurbanov had given a series of interviews to Radio Liberty in Prague during which he severely criticized President Niyazov and the government. Upon his return to Ashgabat in June, the KNB repeatedly summoned him to their offices and kept him under constant surveillance.
In early August, three assailants kidnapped and beat Durdymurat Khoja-Mukhamedov as he was returning home from a meeting at the British Embassy.They drove him outside Ashgabat, kicked and beat him until he lost consciousness, and left him. Khoja-Mukhamedov was still bandaged and in pain one month after the attack. November of 1997 also saw the arrest of Radio Liberty stringer Yovshan Annakurbanov as he prepared to board a flight to Prague to attend a journalists’ seminar. Though Turkmen police later alleged that Annakurbanov possessed a computer disc containing information on Turkmen opposition parties, no mention of the disc was made at the time of his arrest. Annakurbanov was released about a week later, on the eve of U.S. Secretary of Energy Federico Pena’s visit to Turkmenistan.
The death penalty cases of Andre Voronin and Kamal Nepesov highlighted Turkmenistan’s arbitrary and capricious criminal justice system. Amnesty International reported that the two men were sentenced to death in April by a court in the Mary region for the murder of a Bayramali sanitorium director. Voronin and Nepesov claimed they were tortured— their toes crushed with pliers and electric shocks applied to the anus— and that their families were threatened. Further, the men were allowed access to their lawyers only a month after their arrests and only after signing confessions obtained under psychological and physical pressure. While Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm the men’s charges, according to the report, the men also alleged that the authorities failed to investigate their claims of innocence.