Prove They Are Alive: International Campaign on Disappeared Prisoners in Turkmenistan by the Turkmenistan Civic Solidarity Group

Prove They Are Alive

 

Summary Statement:

Crude Accountability, independent civil society activists from Turkmenistan, the Center for Democracy and Development of Human Rights (Russia), Freedom Files (Russia) and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have formed the Turkmenistan Civic Solidarity Group (TCSG) within the Civic Solidarity Platform to enhance our human rights work on Turkmenistan. We are partnering also with Memorial Human Rights Center, Human Rights Watch and independent experts. The Civic Solidarity Platform is a coalition of 54 civil society organizations addressing human rights concerns across the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) region.

The Turkmenistan Civic Solidarity Group has begun the campaign, Prove They Are Alive, to hold the Turkmenistan government accountable for the fates of those prisoners who have been incarcerated since the early 2000s when the government instituted massive repression, arresting many people and simultaneously pressuring and harassing their family members.  The campaign will also focus on those arrested following the 2002 alleged coup attempt and other related cases of mass repression.

We will work with international political and human rights bodies on the international level, including with such institutions as the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union and the US government.  The campaign will push for public statements by these international bodies about individuals imprisoned since the early 2000s, and, in the process, will raise the profile of human rights violations in Turkmenistan on the international scene.

We also invite the government of Turkmenistan to engage in a dialogue with us to resolve the issue of those who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons, to explain their fate and to resolve this humanitarian crisis.

Brief Background:

The first President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, actively removed all political competition and opposition through fabricated criminal cases, holding closed court hearings, and imprisoning political prisoners for long sentences in secret prisons.  In many of these cases, once they were imprisoned, no additional information about these people was available to their relatives or the public.  In rare cases, relatives were informed when a family member died in prison, but there are only a couple of instances when relatives were able to bury their family members.  The fate of the others—several dozen individuals, who were simultaneously convicted—is unknown.  The authorities do not let their relatives see them, they are forbidden to exchange correspondence, the Red Cross is not allowed access to the prisons, and they, themselves, are completely isolated.  Some witnesses have reported that prisoners in some of the secret prisons have not had any idea about what is happening in the world for the past 5 to 10 years.

This practice began at the end of the 1990s and continues to the present day.  The new authorities, under the leadership of President Berdymukhamedov, just as in the time of Niyazov, conceal all information about high profile cases.  Furthermore, the current authorities have decided to take direct responsibility for the fate of those people who were convicted in politically motivated trials during the Niyazov period.  However, these prisoners were sentenced to do time in prison, not to death and oblivion.

Examples of these human rights crimes by the Turkmen authorities include the criminal cases of those individuals who were involved in the alleged coup attempt against President Niyazov in 2002, and the related criminal cases against their relatives and acquaintances.  The trials were held in 2002 and 2003.

In November 2002, a group of political opposition leaders in Turkmenistan was accused of a coup attempt against the government of then President Niyazov.  The members of that group were arrested and quickly imprisoned without proper trials, along with family members and others who were simply swept up in the frenzy around the event.  Since then, the families of the imprisoned have not received any news about them, have not been able to see them, and, in some cases, additional family members were also subject to imprisonment and harassment.  In total, over fifty people were imprisoned and have disappeared, with no word about whether they are alive or dead.   Recently, in a disturbing development, several family members of those imprisoned for ten years and whose prison terms have expired, have been contacted by representatives of the prosecutor’s office or the prison system, indicating that their family members had been re-sentenced to additional prison terms. In many cases, this is the first information family members have received about their loved ones since they were imprisoned.

Despite information from our contacts in Turkmenistan, which suggests that many of those imprisoned in connection with the alleged attempted coup have died in prison, President Berdymukhamedov indicated otherwise in a September 2007 speech at Columbia University in New York.  When asked by a graduate student about the fate of Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdiev, two of the alleged conspirators, Berdymukhamedov stated, “…I am positive they are alive.”1

The Campaign:

The Prove They Are Alive campaign will, through work with international bodies, push the Turkmen authorities to address concerns about the whereabouts of the individuals who were arrested following the attempted coup.  It also will address the cases of some of those individuals connected with other incidents including fraud at the Central Bank, an incident with the National Security Committee and other instances of mass repression.  Blatant failure of the Turkmen government to abide by international human rights standards and international law, and even its own national legislation, with regard to the cases mentioned above, (documented by the OSCE Rapporteur on Turkmenistan, Emmanuel Decaux, in his 2003 report), signals the critical need to place renewed pressure on the Turkmen government and international institutions not to forget these cases.

The goal of the campaign is to uncover the truth about past crimes committed by the authorities and to prevent them in the future.  By raising these important cases on the international level, we will begin to pave the way to address systemic human rights abuses in one of the world’s most opaque and authoritarian regimes.

We believe that it is critical to raise these personal stories in order to emphasize that these people are not forgotten.  Their families have borne this burden silently for the past ten years and it has had an enormous impact on each of them.  Telling this story puts human faces on the regimes of Niyazov and Berdymukhamedov, which are often caricatured in ways that makes the fate of Turkmenistan seem more ridiculous than tragic.

This is important, particularly as the human rights situation throughout the former Soviet states becomes increasingly repressive.  The recent events in Russia, in particular, illustrate the backward slide of these regimes.  Highlighting now, and pressuring the Turkmenistan government to be more transparent about, the fates of these individuals is critical.

Within the campaign, TCSG aims to achieve the following:

  1. To clarify the fates of the imprisoned by obtaining information on their whereabouts, health and condition from the Turkmen government;
  2. To obtain access to the prisoners for their families, their lawyers and their doctors;
  3. To improve the overall current human rights situation in Turkmenistan including the conditions in Turkmenistan’s prisons;
  4. To prevent future disappearance of people inside Turkmenistan’s prison system in the future.

We hope to achieve these goals through engagement with international organizations and through direct dialogue with the Turkmen government, through which they will inform the international community and the families about the fates of the imprisoned.

Solidarity:

If you are interested in working with us on this campaign, please contact provetheyarealive@nullgmail.com

 


 

[1] Deirdre Tynan and David Trilling, Visits of Turkmen, Iranian Leaders Put Columbia University in the Spotlight, Eurasianet.org, September 24, 2007, http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav092507.shtml, accessed May 28, 2013.