Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe:
U.S. Helsinki Commission
Disappeared in Turkmenistan’s Prisons: Are They Still Alive?
Committee Members Present:
Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe
Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division,
Human Rights Watch
Eurasia Democracy Initiative
Independent Expert on Eurasia
The Briefing Was Held From 3:02 p.m. To 4:46 p.m. in Room 122 Cannon House
Office Building, Washington, D.C., Janice Helwig, Policy Adviser, CSCE,
Date: Thursday, February 20, 2014
HELWIG: OK, everyone, welcome. I think we’ll go ahead and get started. I’d
like to welcome you all today on behalf of the Helsinki Commission for this
briefing on “Disappeared in Turkmenistan’s Prisons: Are They still Alive?” I
think most of you know that 10 years ago, 10 OSCE countries invoked the Moscow
Mechanism against Turkmenistan out of concern over hundreds of arrests in the
wake of an alleged fail coup attempt. These cases were detailed in the
resulting report by Moscow Mechanism rapporteur Emmanuel Decaux, who, by the
way is now head of the U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances.
Many of these individuals remain unaccounted for, and other individuals
imprisoned since then have also been disappeared. The Helsinki Commission has
continued, over the years, to raise these cases and to ask for information from
the government of Turkmenistan on the health and whereabouts of these
individuals. Since the Moscow Mechanism was invoked, the United States has
also raised this issue every year at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation
meeting in Warsaw in a special statement. I’d just like to also say, on a
personal note, that I would very much like to know what has happened to former
Foreign Minister Batyr Berdyev, who I knew very well when he was the Turkmen
ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna. I remember him not only as a friend, but as
a Turkmen official who was devoted to and concerned about his country.
I did invite today the embassy of Turkmenistan. I don’t think there’s anybody
here. Perhaps they will come later. So what I will start out with is
introducing all of our panelists now, and then after they all speak, we’re
going to open the floor for comments and questions from you all, so you can be
thinking about anything you might like to ask or say while they’re speaking.
So first, we’re going to hear from Rachel Denber, who is Deputy Director for
Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, where she specializes in the
countries of the former Soviet Union. Previously, she directed Human Rights
Watch’s Moscow office and did field research and advocacy in Russia, Georgia,
Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Estonia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan. That’s a lot. (Laughs.) She has authored reports on a wide range
of human rights issues throughout the region. She earned a bachelor’s degree
from Rutgers University in international relations and a master’s degree in
political science from Columbia University, where she studied at the Harriman
Then we’ll hear from Catherine Fitzpatrick, who is a veteran of the
international human rights movement and has been active on human rights in
Eurasia for 35 years. She is a New York-based consultant for a number of
nonprofit human rights organizations, and has served as a public member on the
U.S. delegation to several OSCE human dimension meetings. She has been a
regular contributor of news articles and translations to a number of websites,
including Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and EurasiaNet, and is currently a
translator and writer for The Interpreter, which covers Russian and related
regional media. She has followed Turkmenistan since 2005, edited a weekly
newspaper on Turkmenistan from 2006 through 2012, and currently contributes
regularly to Natural Gas Europe on developments in Turkmenistan’s oil and gas
And we’ll hear from Peter Zalmayev, who is director of the Eurasia Democracy
Initiative, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion
of democracy and rule of law in post-communist transitional societies of
Eastern Europe and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. He received
his masters in international affairs from Columbia University’s school of
international and public affairs with a concentration in post-Soviet Eurasian
studies. From 2000 to 2006, he managed the Central Asia Caucasus program at
the International League for Human Rights, and he now provides regular
commentary to the U.S. international print and broadcast media on political,
social and economic developments in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
You may have also heard Peter’s name because he is the one who directly asked
president Berdimuhammedov at Columbia University in 2008 about the whereabouts
of these individuals and whether they were still alive.
Kate Watters is cofounder and executive director of Crude Accountability, an
environmental and human rights nonprofit organization that works with natural
resource-impacted communities in the Caspian and Black Sea regions. She works
closely with activists in affected communities to develop strategies and
campaigns for environmental and human rights protections on the local, national
and international levels. She has conducted a wide variety of trainings and
workshops, including on human rights awareness, popular epidemiology, and
community air monitoring. She has also trained local activists to understand
compliance and accountability mechanisms at the World Bank and other
international financial institutions. She is the author of numerous reports
and articles on civil society in Central Asia and the Caspian region and has
been interviewed for print media, radio and television with regard to
environment, oil and gas and human rights in the Caspian and Black Sea regions.
And then finally, we’ll hear from Mr. Boris Shikhmuradov who is the editor of
Gundogar News Service, which provides independent news about Turkmenistan.
Boris is also the son of Boris Shikhmuradov the former foreign minister turned
opposition figure who was imprisoned in 2002 following an alleged coup attempt
to overthrow the government of Turkmenistan. Boris Shikhmuradov Senior has
been disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prison system since December 2002, and his
family has not heard any word about his fate since then. Boris and his family
have been working to find information about his father for the past 12 years,
including appealing to international organizations, such as the United Nations
and the OSCE.
Boris is in Washington, D.C. today just to participate on this panel, and we
truly appreciate his taking the time to come and speak with us. So with that,
Rachel, I will turn it over to you.
DENBER: Hi. Thank you so much. Janice, thank you for inviting me to join
this really important panel. I thought that we would start by painting kind of
a broad picture of Turkmenistan, and to help understand why it is that there
can be a government that allows a situation to happen whereby people just
disappear in its prison system and where the government denies – refuses to
provide any information about their health or their whereabouts to the loved
How could it be that a government would refuse to even acknowledge whether
persons in their custody are even dead or alive? I mean, that is – that should
be – that is an extremely – it’s an atrocity. It should boggle our minds how
something like that can happen. What kind of government would allow that to
happen? So I’d like to just talk a little bit about what kind of government
the Turkmen government is and to provide a context and help you understand how
these circumstances could actually be.
So I think many people have no trouble identifying what kind of government
North Korea is. When you hear the – when you hear the country name “North
Korea,” you automatically identify it as – this is one of the most closed,
totalitarian governments in the world. It’s very – it’s very – you know, it’s
one of the most closed countries in the world, one of the most repressive
countries in the world. Am I right? When I say North Korea, you – everybody
automatically knows what you’re talking about.
But when you say Turkmenistan, most people – even many policymakers who should
know better just sort of scratch their heads and say, where? Isn’t that the
place with the crazy dictator who had the statue that went this way and that
way, the revolving – most associations people had with Turkmenistan,
unfortunately, date from the Niyazov period where – under the – where – during
the presidency of Saparmurat Niyazov, who had a grotesque personality cult.
The country was mostly associated with the excesses of his personality cult,
with the gold statues he built to himself, the renaming of the months after his
family members, after the renaming of days after his family members. Just
about – probably one of the most grotesque personality cults in the modern era.
And then, after Niyazov died in 2006, I think the – and was replaced, I would
say, by Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, there were – I think there was a very brief
period when people thought maybe there could be some winds of change, but those
hopes were very, very quickly dashed, and I think Turkmenistan sort of fell
into a – kind of a blank space. On the one hand, you have the government under
Berdimuhammedov seeking for the – seeking more external contact, so you saw
Berdimuhammedov go on trips abroad, which Niyazov almost never did.
There was a rotating – a revolving door of diplomats and businessmen going into
– going into Turkmenistan. It’s a level of contact that I think was not the
case during the Niyazov period. So it seems – it seems, I think, to the
external world, and I think, especially to policymakers who were very eager to
reap the benefits of Turkmenistan’s hydrocarbon wealth, it seemed like – you
know, that this was a time of opening and a time of potential engagement.
But really, very little has changed since Niyazov’s death. And if anything,
the only thing that’s changed, maybe, are the statues and the portraits.
Berdimuhammedov has been busy building his own cult of personality.
Turkmenistan remains one of the – one of the most closed and repressive
governments in the world. There is increased contact between Turkmenistan and
the international community, but none of that has to do with human rights.
There is no change in the fact that – there is no change in Turkmenistan’s
stature as a country where there is absolutely no independent scrutiny of its
human rights situation – none.
Ten special – we call them special rapporteurs under the United Nations or the
human – they’re basically United Nations human rights monitors. Ten of them
have requested permission to visit the country. All 10 are waiting for their
invitations from the Turkmen government. Human Rights Watch has not been to
Turkmenistan since 1999 because the government won’t give us visas even when we
have left our passports at the embassy for lengthy periods of time.
It’s closed to external scrutiny; Turkmenistan is also very much closed to
internal scrutiny. This is a government that does not tolerate even the most
mild criticism. Not from within its own ranks, certainly not from – you know,
from outside its ranks. There is no freedom of expression. There is no free
media. There are no – really – there cannot be – the idea of an independent
nongovernmental organization is basically unheard of.
There are a couple of activists who are – who operate very, very much under the
radar who are able to get information about human rights violations. They do
that, really, at their own peril. The rare journalists or reporters who work
with – who try to – you know, who are stringers for foreign news outlets put
their lives and their safety in jeopardy when they do that. You know, just
about every year we hear about a correspondent or a reporter for Radio Free
Europe, Radio Liberty, getting arrested, getting detained, getting harassed.
This is a government that – you know, nongovernmental organizations, they’re –
unregistered nongovernmental organization activity is criminalized in
Turkmenistan. There can be – in order to get a foreign grant – you know, a
foreign grant, an NGO basically has to go through five layers of approvals by
the Turkmen government. Obviously any kind of real political – real political
alternatives, real alternative political parties are out of the question.
There was a great deal of – a great deal of hullabaloo made when the – when an
alternative – when an alternative political party – supposedly alternative
political party was created at the end of last year, but this party is led by a
crony of Berdimuhammedov, so I don’t think that we should read too much into
But I think that – I think that too often international actors, particularly,
you know, international financial institutions and the like, who are trying
very hard to see some positive movement in Turkmenistan for their own
interests, tend to look at these changes like the introduction of a – of a new
political party or a second political party and this new – a new law on the
media that was adopted recently as some kind of harbinger of change. But in
fact, they are – it’s window dressing. It is – it is not real change.
Turkmenistan is one of the few countries that still retain – that still prevent
foreign travel abroad absolutely arbitrarily. It’s not – it’s not – there have
been – for several years now Turkmen – the Turkmen migration authorities have
prevented people from leaving the country for study abroad, they have prevented
the relatives and family circle – well, relatives, family circles of
inconvenient persons – whether they are relatives of – whether they are exiled
political opposition people or other people who are just inconvenient to the
They prevent these people from leaving the country. There are – year after –
every year there seem to be students who have difficulty leaving the country to
complete their travel abroad in various different countries. It’s not – it’s
not at all unheard off to be actually pulled off the airplane by migration
officials as you’re trying to leave – you know, as you’re trying to leave the
country. So if you’re anybody who has any kind of connection to suspicious
people or if you’re – if you’re going to suspicious countries, your ability to
travel abroad is in question.
It’s also a country – I want to say a couple more words about Berdimuhammedov’s
cult of personality and the degree to which the country is ruled by –
absolutely ruled by him and his cronies. Whenever Berdimuhammedov – whenever
Berdimuhammedov, you know, travels to the regions and when – and makes public
appearances, these are – the government mobilizes, local authorities mobilize
local citizens to – you know, to come, to attend rallies, to praise the
government. These are – these can be kind of traumatic experiences. People
have to come and praise him in – you know, in unison. And once you’re – once
you’re in the venue, you’re not allowed – you’re not allowed to leave until the
You probably also heard – I think one indicator of – one indication about – of
the degree to which he’s trying to cultivate this image for himself and the
degree of – lack of any kind of media freedom, I think many of you probably
heard about an incident last year when Berdimuhammedov wanted to – you know,
he’s a – you all know how important horses are and horse racing is in Turkmen
culture. And Berdimuhammedov was participating in a – in a hippodrome race.
And of course, his horse was supposed to win. But as one person joked, his
horse was afraid of coming over the finish line before he actually did and he
fell off the horse. And this was caught on video – you know, there – of
course, there were many journalists there. You know, the president – because
this was the president at the – at the hippodrome. And as soon as he fell off
the horse, people – people were stunned.
And secret service people came out from all – from all around to take away
everyone’s video cameras because this was not supposed to appear on the news at
all. And it was – it was – otherwise this is – because this is – this is
Berdimuhammedov, his appearance would have been all over – you know, all over
the Turkmen news. And – but it was very – yeah, one person was able to smuggle
out a film. And it was quite shocking.
This is an environment where – and I won’t talk about this because I know Cathy
Fitzpatrick will, where the government makes use of the criminal justice system
to deal with its – with inconvenient people, to deal with political rivals and
for – where – and where people can – and – to deal with political rivals where
you – the criminal justice system is used in political ways all the time.
And unfortunately, because there are, you know, no – because human rights
organizations can’t operate in an open environment, it’s extremely – it is
extremely difficult to get information about the circumstances under which
people are detained, the circumstances under which they’re charged and the
circumstances under which they are – they are sent for long years to prison.
The last point I wanted to make is that this is also an environment where there
is no freedom of religion, or freedom of religion is extremely – is highly
curtailed. There are – particularly – not only, but particularly for
Protestant and Baptist religious confessions where there are numerous instances
where they are harassed at their – by their local – by their local – by local
governments, where they are not only preventing from gathering and worshiping,
but where they are actively persecuted and threatened. So this is just the big
picture of a country where people can disappear into the prison system.
HELWIG: Thank you, Rachel. So we’ll turn it over to Cathy next.
FITZPATRICK: Thank you, Janice. I’m Cathy Fitzpatrick. And I’m going to talk
about the climate of fear that’s created in the government by the constant
harassment and bullying of officials and then their disappearance – jailing,
disappearance and sometimes re-emergence, which keeps everyone off-balance. I
sometimes think Turkmenistan is kind of like a hologram, that if you break off
any piece of it, it will just keep replicating because the patterns and the
structures of that kind of society are so hard to change.
Commonly, we think that the problem is that there’s this cult of personality,
that if we just take out the persona – and he’s not really so personable –
Berdimuhammedov, that we’ll just change the whole system. And that was the
theory about Niyazov, but it replicates because it really isn’t so much the
cult of personality as it is the fact that all decisions are wired to come to
that figure and that office. I mean, everything from whether a gas field is
sold or leased to a foreign country or company to the pattern on a schoolgirl’s
uniform, the shape of a box hedge, all of those decisions are coming by serial
processing to the president.
So it makes it very hard to change the society because there’s no group that
can show initiative. It reminds me of the Soviet period when, around 1991, I
visited – (inaudible). And a KGB officer told us that people were so afraid of
starting perestroika that the KGB itself had to start it and pose as
businessmen. And that, of course, had a terrible effect. And that is where –
you know, if you look for sectors in the society that could bring about change,
it’s hard to know where to find them because they’ve been kept so terrorized.
Probably the most insecure job in the country in the national security chief.
That person has been changed numerous times. The second-most changed officials
are in the oil and gas sector. Just last month the president issued strict
reprimands, as they call them, strict – (in Turkmen) – strict reprimands to
Yaylym Berdiev, the minister of national security, and Dovrangeldy Bayramov of
– the chairman of the state migration service. And he called them on the
carpet for lax oversight – it’s always the same formula – shortcomings in their
work. About what? Could it have been related to the issue of Afghanistan and
the spillover, the issue – when you tie together this – national security and
federal migration? Could it be related to Iran? We don’t know, and we may
never know because they will never tell us; they just have these vague
televised reprimands and newspaper accounts, and then the person disappears.
It’s often been noted that the foreign minister, Rashid Meredov, is the last
man standing from the previous dictator’s Cabinet. So then the question is,
why would he still be there? I mean, his fate contrasts so much with
Shikhmuradov’s fate. And the – it’s almost as if they need to have one
familiar face, especially for dealing with foreigners, because foreigners would
really begin to wonder what’s going on with this government if they didn’t have
at least one person they could orient themselves towards.
So as Rachel was saying, it’s not like North Korea. They’re not executing
people on TV. But in some ways, it has a more – a long-term worse effect by
disappearing people. So they’re out of view, the public forgets them, but the
internal life of the regime is very much terrorized because they know those
people are disappeared, and they don’t forget them.
The whole way that Berdimuhammedov came to power was by – the constitutional
system was set up that the speaker, so-called speaker of parliament – which, of
course, is just a rubber-stamp parliament – he was supposed to be the interim
leader after the death of Niyazov. And it’s not much of a democratic
structure, of course, but even that pretext of democracy had to be trampled by
the next – by this coup, essentially. So what Berdimuhammedov did was he saw
that this man had a family tragedy where his son’s wife had committed suicide.
And so they brought charges against this man blaming him for the suicide. They
also claimed he had abused his office.
And then, you know, as often happens, as Rachel has mentioned, they have the
family plan. You know, one person is in jail; they bring the whole family, put
them in jail too, mainly so that they won’t become, you know, like the mothers
of the Plaza de Mayo or some kind of, you know, relatives group that’s going to
start to agitate and bring attention to their – to the fate of their loved ones
and put them in jail too.
What’s curious is that he was – that the speaker of parliament was sentenced to
five years, and then all of sudden, in March 2012, at the – at the U.N. in New
York when there was a section of the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the deputy
foreign minister announced that he – that Atayev (ph) and his wife were
released and that they had been released for a while. But no one had seen them,
and we still can’t really confirm what happened to them. And we were – we were
told that this was a kind of gift to the U.N., that, you know, this case had
been raised many times – and it actually shows why it’s important to raise
cases because they do eventually act on them, but we – it’s not much a gift if
the – if the man isn’t free.
The other – there are is – concentric circles around that case because
Berdimuhammedov also had to dismiss the prosecutor, the prosecutor that he had
conspired to just set up a tie of – on the fake charges. So that man knew too
much; he had to go. And then it’s often in the Stalinist mode that, you know,
first it starts up with those who knew too much, and then the circles of those
who knew about those who disappeared and those who had reports, and then it
just goes so far that pretty soon, you know, you have the entire system is –
half of them are in jail.
I want to mention another figure from the Niyazov regime who was disappeared in
the first few days after he came to power, and that’s Lieutenant General –
(inaudible) – who was the chief of the presidential security service and his
son and another associated businessman. And this man was said – usually the
way it’s described, that he was some kind of kingmaker, or he was part of the
sort of palace coup that brought this dentist to power. But it could have just
been a business dealing. We don’t know. I mean, often there is very mundane
reasons for the way these governments work; they just have some kind of, you
know, caper in Qatar or Turkey or something, and somebody has an offshore
business and, you know, that’s a part of how they – where they send them – send
offshore the funds, and that’s – the people are arrested because they know too
much. So that man is rumored dead, and no one knows what has happened to him.
Another case of concern is Gulgedy Annaniyazov. He was able to – he was
arrested and then eventually released, went to Norway, got asylum and then had
the bad judgment to return to Turkmenistan and be arrested. And lot of people
have been trying to get him out since, notably Norway itself. The U.N. working
group on arbitrary detention has issued an opinion that, you know, he – his
case is a violation of human rights, and let’s hope that that will eventually
help to get more information about him. No information’s been received since
2009 when he just asked for a pair of glasses. And we don’t know – did they
get broken, what happened.
Last year the European parliamentary member Leonidas Donskis together with 23
colleagues signed a letter to the Turkmen ambassador, and he included
Annaniyazov’s case and also two – the case of two popular YouTube singers who
were – who were arrested because their songs seemed a little too much
rabble-rousing. They had the work – the word “awake” in them – awake, awake,
Turkmenistan. And that was thought, you know, to be, you know, sort of Orange
Revolution material. So those two were arrested. And that appeal did lead to
their release. So it shows why those kinds of appeals are worth doing.
I just want to mention one other – two other cases, if I have a minute. One is
the main interlocutor for all these billion-dollar oil and gas deals. I mean,
this is a tremendous amount of business of all of these companies of China and
Germany that actually have deals with Turkmenistan, and U.S. is always trying
to get a deal there. Chevron is always in talks, but – in the promise that
they’re going to get a lease, an oil field that they can drill, but they never
do. So – but really, the – most of the oil and gas businesses is really now in
the hands of China and to some extent Malaysia and a little bit of Germany.
But all those billions of dollars are all – were all in the hands of one fellow
named Tadgberdy Tagiyev (ph). And he was very well-known. He was in every
meeting. He was in the – in the Czechs’ energy summit in 2009. And then he
was last seen going to China, similar to Shikhmuradov’s case, where he went to
China, tried to ask for more money from the Chinese, and then he was apparently
arrested and disappeared. So that was 2009. Disappeared.
No one knew where he went. They didn’t know if he was arrested for corruption.
There were rumors that he was – his arrest was about the Chinese, that he
would fail to get more money out of the Chinese and had to be punished.
Another version of the story was that he knew the truth about the real size of
the oil – the gas reserves in Turkmenistan and could – and knew that the
Western assessments of these were in fact based on both Soviet and Turkmen
engineering studies that were – that were inflated. That was a bit of a
I think probably the Chinese story is more likely because Berdimuhammedov
solved the problem of the Chinese by taking his son-in-law. I mean, the family
clan also works in the government, where they become so distrusting of
officials, even in their own clan, even that they’ve spent their whole careers
with, that they bring in their own family members and then tie them through
blood ties into deals. And that son-in-law was able to finish – to get – to
complete the Chinese gas deal. However, he then fell from favor because he got
caught in some kind of real estate scam in London.
So, I mean, these kinds of stories are just – there is literally hundreds of
them, and we can’t even track them all, and they – these reprimands happen
practically every week. And someone then disappears from view, and we don’t
know what happened to them.
Just one other – one final case that just came off the newswires recently was
the man who was in charge of the horse breeding that the – Akhal-Teke, of
course, is like the symbol of Turkmen nationhood, and it’s also a rare recent
breed that, you know, was prized and – around the world, and it’s – Rachel told
us how the president was riding on the white horse that was, you know, from
this breed and so on.
This man who used to be the director of this horse breeding concern, Gelgik
Girazov (ph), he was arrested on grounds that no one could ever make sense of,
and they seemed to be trumped up. He was tortured. He was sentenced. He then
was released. There was a lot of intervention on his behalf from foreign
diplomats who knew him and knew the farm. And one sad aspect of it – I mean,
it sometimes takes animals dying to get people to care, you know, it’s – people
dying doesn’t always work, I find, in this business, but the horses on the farm
all died after he was arrested, and that caused people to be very concerned
about this case, and he got a lot of attention. So he was released, but now
he’s in very poor health – you know, broke his back when he was tortured. He’s
not allowed to leave for medical care abroad.
So there you have it. And I think it’s important to have businessmen raise
these cases, even quietly, because, you know, not just for human rights
grounds, they should care for practical reasons that the people they’re doing
business with there disappear and take the deal with them.
Just one final comment is the WikiLeaks cases. And it’s going to be a very
short comment because I’m not even going to list their names, although there
are several cases that I’m working on, serious reprisals of people mentioned in
WikiLeaks, that either their names were redacted or their profiles were such
that you could detect who they were. And these people have been harmed. And
it’s often said that there’s no harm from WikiLeaks, by the supporters, but
that’s because the people who have been mentioned in WikiLeaks don’t want to
get up and paint a target on their back and say, hi, I’ve been mentioned in
WikiLeaks so hit me again, OK?
So, you know, if you’re in Turkmenistan and you are mentioned in those cables,
you hope maybe no one will notice or – you know, you don’t want to be – draw
attention to yourself. So it’s hard to even – you know, you can’t publicize
these cases but they are working their way through. And, you know, eventually
I think we will see there’s a lot more damage than has been reported, because
you have to look at not just human rights activists but a whole variety of
people who brought information from the U.S. Embassy of various kinds, some of
them about human rights, some of it about oil and gas, all kinds of issues, and
what’s happened with them as a result of this publication. Thanks.
HELWIG: Thank you, Cathy.
ZALMAYEV: I’m going to talk about – a little bit about the current potential
leverage of individual governments with respect to Turkmenistan.
More than 10 years ago now the Turkmen courts handed down lengthy prison
sentences to a group of alleged participants in an alleged assassination
attempt against – on President Nizayov’s life. The short trials lasted a few
hours at most. To this date the very minimal demands of the international
community, which Rachel characterized as an atrocity, have not been met, and
that is to tell anything to the relatives and loved ones and their former
colleagues about the well-being of these prisoners and to allow the Red Cross
to visit that group of prisoners at all. The Turkmen officials have never
offered voluntary comments as to the status of its prisoners other than a very
surprise question that was put to the president in 2008 at Columbia University.
The case of Turkmenistan’s intransigence on issue presents a curious confluence
of various factors, among them the international institutions’ lack of
enforcement mechanisms, the foreign governments’ lack of political will to
intervene, the relative obscurity of Turkmenistan’s geopolitical, now,
position, and finally the apparent interest in maintaining the status quo by
foreign companies with – that are present in Turkmenistan.
There has been much carrot and very little stick in the international approach
to Turkmenistan, with the exception of a few isolated cases, including the
release from prison of several activists. The Turkmen government has not
budged on any of these. The picture is pretty dire. Institutions have been
reduced to paying mere lip service to the need to abide by international human
rights obligations, and there’s very little appetite for the few tricks left in
the bag to be deployed, and the main one being political pressure, direct legal
pressure from governments.
As a consensus-based organization, the OSCE was instrumental 10 years ago in
2003 when it invoked its investigative Moscow Mechanism, which resulted in a
comprehensive report prepared by a special appointed rapporteur who was
actually barred from visiting the country. Since then the organization has
been futilely pointing to the document in trying to reason with its
recalcitrant member, often being found in a very humiliating position of
lecturing to an empty chair, which Turkmenistan has, for many years now,
neglected in an apparent show of contempt to send its representative to the
OSCE’s annual Human Dimension meetings in Warsaw.
In a situation where the organization’s very charter cannot be enforced even
though such a symbolic gesture as, let’s say, its temporary suspension – which
is what the Council of Europe, for example, did with Belarus in ’97, in Russia
in 2000 – what mechanisms of encouraging good behavior is left? In a situation
when the organization’s budget for its office in Ashgabat is pretty much
unspent and the – its very mission is under de facto quarantine by the
government, what can one talk about with respect to engagement and a dialogue?
I’m afraid we can’t, and with each passing day the OSCE is sinking further into
the pool of irrelevance where it’s been getting mired for quite some time now.
This pessimistic impression of mine was vividly reconfirmed when I visited last
week the site of the Moscow Mechanism which took place in Vienna on the
sidelines of the winter session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Though I
have to say kudos to members of the coalition – proved that they are a live
campaign – who organized the event, it seemed to be business as usual when you
looked around the room at the sleepy lunchroom – lunchtime faces of the OSCE
bureaucrats – (laughter) – as usual not willing to rock any boats and as usual
happy to feed on the steady diet of cooperation and dialogue language.
The U.N., with its myriad institutions, finds itself in a similarly unenviable
position of having its frequent attempts at intervention wholly ignored,
whether the conclusions of its Universal Periodic Review Working Group in
Geneva, which works under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, or the
special rapporteurs that Rachel has mentioned, who have been, each one of them,
denied access to the country.
Turkmenistan’s proclaimed policy of neutrality has allowed its government to
play off the various sides to manage Russia and China on one end, the EU states
and the United States on the other, which in effect it has hamstrung the latter
in their attempts, however feeble, to bring about positive change in
Turkmenistan. The EU’s position has been that only dialogue and not ostracism
can bring about good behavior and has engaged the Turkmen government under the
interim trade agreement, consistently stopping short of signing the
full-fledged Cooperation and Partnership Agreement, in large measure due to the
vocal protests of human rights groups over the years.
It certainly doesn’t help the cause of democracy in Turkmenistan that the EU
considers and continues to consider Turkmenistan as a vital alterative of
energy supply bypassing Russia. So while lip service is paid to the need to
develop democracy in Turkmenistan and to do something about its political
prisoners, reflected most recently – and I’m using air quotes here – in its
2003 resolution of the European Parliament on the human rights situation in
Turkmenistan and Central Asia.
The official position, one that you find on the EU’s website, states that:
“Recent years have shown a significant strengthening of the EU-Turkmenistan
relations. The European Commission, via the overall policy dialogue of the
development cooperation instrument, has reinforced its bilateral cooperation
with Turkmenistan and is supporting the economic, social and institutional
sector reforms announced by the Turkmen leadership.”
Finally, in 2008 the new EU Special Representative for Central Asia Patricia
Flor stated that she did not support setting in concrete benchmarks for
progress on human rights in Central Asia as a foundation for the EU’s
relationships with states like Turkmenistan. So whereas the EU’s influence in
Turkmenistan is limited, Washington’s is probably even smaller and dwindling.
Although it presents all the right rhetoric that can be found in its annual
human rights reports and in the interventions of the institution that it hosts,
such as the Helsinki Commission, the U.S. has little strategic interest in
Turkmenistan, and unfortunately little leverage to bring about any meaningful
So what can the EU and the U.S. do? What can they do? What they can do is
actually – is something that they will be most reluctant to do, and that is to
raise the issues including that of the political prisoners, the group we are
talking about today, directly in their bilateral engagements with the Turkmen
government officials all the way up to the president; to exert pressure through
companies which do business in Turkmenistan, including those taking part in the
feeding frenzy of the country’s vast and still underdeveloped gas industry; all
of that while keeping in mind that introducing any sort of human rights
benchmarks into dealings of these companies will probably further antagonize
the Turkmen government and push it closer and make them embrace even more
tightly their Russian and Chinese competitors, which are already predominant on
Likewise, it is important to bring closer scrutiny to the dealings of banks
such as Deutsche Bank and companies such as Daimler and Caterpillar and John
Deere and others, to dissuade them from contributing to the stability of the
regime and to its ideology. The precedent was set a few years ago when the
Deutsche Bank account of the Turkmen government was investigated. It is said –
it is reported to be under the sole and direct control of the president, and it
is estimated to be around $20 billion. Also, several companies have been
publicly exposed in shameful underwriting and translation into their language
and publication of the former President Niyazov’s spiritual guide Ruhnama.
Daimler did that a few years ago and had to pay a pretty hefty price when it
was the subject of a suit brought against it by the U.S. Justice Department.
But limited sanctions must also be on the table in the form of a visa ban on
high-level officials. With its trade embargo against Cuba still in place in
the Magnitsky law, would it be that much of a stretch to consider some sort of
a symbolic gesture against, and at the very least, equally bad human rights
violator like Turkmenistan?
Will these measures work? It’s far from certain and I’m skeptical, to be
frank, that they will. But it is certain that the current approach has failed
and it is time to be – to stop paying lip service to – and hiding behind
diplomatic language. And maybe it’s time to acknowledge reality and to try
HELWIG: Thank you.
WATTERS: I’m Kate Watters, executive director of Crude Accountability. And
I’m going to take us from the sort of broader description of what Turkmenistan
is, and appalling human rights situation there, to a very concrete campaign
that my organization and Human Rights Watch is also involved. And 54 other
organizations that are part of a group called the Turkmenistan Civic Solidarity
Group have begun in the last six months. They’re just called Prove They Are
Alive. And this is an effort – this is a campaign to try to do exactly what
the title says, prove they are alive, to identify and to understand what the
fates are of the dozens, maybe hundreds of people who have disappeared inside
Turkmenistan’s prison system since the 2000s.
My colleagues have already described the situation so I won’t go into a lot of
the details, but all of the people who are – who we are researching and trying
to identify in our campaign are people who have been missing for at least 10
years, they’re people who had unfair trials if they had a trial at all. They
were arrested and put into the prison system and have simply disappeared.
Their families have not seen them. They have not been able to send them
letters or packages. They have no information about their health.
The people in the prison systems have had no access to medical care. They’ve
had no access to legal representation. And although in some of the agreements
that family members have from the Turkmen government, there are even
stipulations about how many times a year they’re supposed to be able to see
their family members, in fact they have never seen them.
For some of the family members, they had heard information that a year ago,
maybe a year-and-a-half ago, that their family members who were nearing the
ends of their terms, those who were serving shorter terms – 10 years, 12 years
– they were coming to the end of their term and the families were told that
they would be getting good news soon. And they all assumed that their family
members would be released. A few months later most of those people – many of
those people were informed that, in fact, their family member had had a fight
with a guard, had done something in the prison system which had caused them to
be resentenced. In one instance we know a family member was supposed to come
out and then was resentenced to seven – seven years more.
And in other instances, at the time when the family member should have heard
information about their people, they simply heard nothing. So there was this
sort of rush of hope that maybe after this decade we’re going to see our
person, we’re going to find information out about them, and then again nothing.
This is tantamount to torture, never mind what’s happening to the people
inside the prison systems. For their family members, for their loved ones, for
their colleagues even, this amounts to torture.
So our campaign is not asking the Turkmen government to say that these people
are political prisoners. We’re not asking for fair trials. We’re not asking
them to release these people from prison even, although, frankly, all of those
three demands would be perfectly reasonable in most of these circumstances.
What we’re asking for is simply information. It’s a pretty low bar. It’s a
pretty low standard. And we’re asking the international community to support
us – civil social organizations, governments, international organizations,
businesses, people – human beings to stand up and say: Prove they are alive.
So we want to cooperate on the international level with various types of
international institutions, as I mentioned, but we’re also hoping to get into
some kind of dialogue, as naïve as it sounds, with the Turkmen government. And
we’ve written to the foreign minister a letter – you may have seen the
materials outside. We’ve written to Minister Meredow. We’ve been waiting for
almost four months now for a response. And because we haven’t received a
response, we have made that letter public. So you can feel free to take that
letter, read it, send it – show it to people, because we believe that what has
created – not created, but what has worsened this problem over time is the fact
that it’s not being spoken about publicly.
There’s a lot of effort on the diplomatic level, and we acknowledge that effort
and we are grateful for that effort. We appreciate that effort and we believe
that it is what’s kept this issue on the table all of these years, but it’s
time to speak publicly. It’s time to speak out in the world about what’s
happening in Turkmenistan. Why is it that we know about Korea? Why is it
North Korea? Why is it that we know about Myanmar but we don’t know about
And the disappearances that are happening in Turkmenistan and continue to
happen in Turkmenistan are very similar to the kinds of disappearances that
happened in Argentina in the ‘70s. People know about that. So we want people
to know about what’s happening in Turkmenistan. So, as I said, we’ve invited
the Turkmen government into dialogue and we’re hoping that they will agree at
some point to speak with us or with other intermediaries.
At about the same time that all of these arrests happened in 2002, 2003, the
government also cracked down on civil society. Rachel talked about that.
Cathy talked about that a little bit. But in 2003, the Turkmen government
created a new NGO law, and that NGO law essentially required that every
organization that had been operating reregister with the government so that
they could continue to, you know, do whatever their humanitarian work was,
their environmental work, their women’s issues work, whatever it was,
beekeepers – there were beekeepers.
So everyone was forced to reregister. And then, not surprisingly, virtually
every organization, when they went back with their new documents, was denied
registration, which automatically made their work illegal. Initially it was a
criminal offense to continue to work as a civil society organization after that
law was changed. The criminal piece was taken away but the damage was done.
Civil society, which had been small but fledgling and growing in Turkmenistan
was smashed down at just about the same time that all of this repression was
happening in the political sphere. And it had, as my colleagues have
mentioned, the effect of really terrorizing the society, and that terror
continues. That unknowing, that disappearing that you never know if it’s going
to be you or the guy sitting next to you, makes for – makes it very, very hard
to speak out.
The other piece, which Cathy also talked about, is this collective punishment.
In 2002, when people were rounded up, they weren’t just the people who were
allegedly involved in this coup attempt, allegedly tried to assassinate the
president. They were their family members, their friends, people they went to
school with, people who lived near them, people who just happened to be there.
They were swept up, taken away, and many of those people disappeared as well.
So the pressure to speak out is enormous, and even for people who are outside
of the country, if they have family members who are inside, they risk their
family members, they risk their friends, they risk their schoolmates, they risk
their former neighbors’ health and safety. And sadly, President
Berdimuhammedov has continued this tradition of authoritarian rule, of massive
human rights violations and suppression of dissent, which Niyazov started all
those years ago.
So we believe that it’s time to stop. It’s time to stop this. It’s time for
the Turkmen government to join the international community of nations abiding
by international human rights standards. It’s time to stop the suffering of
the families of the disappeared and it’s time for the government of
Turkmenistan to speak the truth about their fates.
We’ve talked to the OSCE about this issue, both at the human dimensions meeting
held in Warsaw in October of last year and at the Parliamentary Assembly, as my
colleague mentioned, last week, which was held in Vienna. We’ve brought the
case of specific families to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and
Involuntary Disappearances, and we’re speaking here today with you, asking for
international support for our campaign. As I mentioned, we’ve also written to
– to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Rasit Meredow, and we have yet to hear
We’ve also been conducting a lot of research, and you see on the wall the faces
of some of the disappeared. This is not a complete list, and as you can see,
we don’t yet have even photographs of many of the disappeared, even some of the
very well-known people. We don’t have a photograph of Batyr Berdyev, for
example. It’s very hard to find this information. In some cases there is a
fair amount of information to be had; for example, the case of Boris
Shikhmuradov and even information about Batyr Berdyev and some of the others
who were connected with the alleged coup attack in 2002. Those cases are
better documented than some of the others.
But even in these instances, we have conflicting accounts, difficulty verifying
information, and politically motivated information, which makes it challenging
to put together a reliable narrative. So using these published materials in
Russian and English that we’ve been able to find, as well as accounts from
those who are willing to speak with us, we’ve been able to put together some of
the stories. And the biographies that we have are outside on the table, for
anybody who’s interested in reading them. And our goal is to document the
names and the biographies of the disappeared as fully as we can and to publish
We’re also working with various international governments to convince the
Turkmen officials that speaking out about the disappeared is actually in their
interest. We also hope that the international community will recognize its own
responsibility and continue to push the government of Turkmenistan to honor its
As you’ve heard, Emmanuel Decaux, a professor who is the special rapporteur,
issued a report in keeping with the Moscow mechanism, which is one of the
mechanisms of the OSCE which allows for research into cases when there’s been a
violation. And we believe that continuing to push for the information and the
questions that were raised in Professor Decaux’s report is really important.
So in order to continue the efforts of Professor Decaux and all of those who
have continued year in and year out to raise the questions about the
disappeared and to push Turkmenistan to speak publicly, we have a few
recommendations that are for the OSCE and for other international organizations
and the United States government with regard to Turkmenistan.
One is that we believe the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE should consider
establishing a working group on Turkmenistan. It could also alternatively have
a personal representative of the chair of the Parliamentary Assembly that would
work on the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, and that person could be
Secondly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE should adopt a resolution on
Turkmenistan at its 2013 summer session or alternatively adopt a resolution on
enforced disappearances and abductions in the OSCE region specifically
referring to cases in Turkmenistan along with other countries, perhaps Belarus
or, sadly, Ukraine comes to mind.
Members of the Parliamentary Assembly delegations to the OSCE, including the
United States, should urge their governments to put questions to the government
of Turkmenistan on the status of the disappeared, the state of the
investigation of the cases of the enforced disappearances, and they should
request visits to see political prisoners.
In addition, the U.S. government should consider – should continue, excuse me,
to raise the issue of the disappeared both publicly and privately in the
diplomatic engagement with Turkmenistan. We know that privately the issue of
the disappeared has been raised many times in internal discussions, and we know
this has gone on for many years. But in addition, we believe that discussing
the issue publicly is critical to obtaining a statement from the government
about the status of the disappeared.
The U.S. can play this role in its bilateral relationship with Turkmenistan and
through the various international organizations to which it’s a party,
including the United Nations, the USCE and other humanitarian and even cultural
organizations. UNESCO comes to mind, for example.
And finally, the role of the international financial institutions is one that
can be used here, and I encourage governments to think about international
financial institutions as well and to push them to include human rights
standards overtly in their requirements for financing in Turkmenistan. The
European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has done this by binding
Article 1 to lending in Turkmenistan. This has had a very large impact on the
way the institution operates in Turkmenistan. The World Bank, sadly, is
lagging behind, but human rights organizations are pushing hard for overt human
rights – (inaudible) – the World Bank.
And with countries like Turkmenistan, this is really a critical and key piece
because we know Turkmenistan doesn’t need money from the West. It doesn’t need
money. It can go to China for money and go elsewhere for money. It has its
own money, for heaven’s sake. What it needs is political legitimacy. And
institutions like the World Bank, institutions like the EBRD, membership in the
OSCE, those kinds of things give legitimacy. And that’s where the pressure
needs to come.
So I’ll stop with that. Thank you.
HELWIG: Thank you, Kate. Boris.
BORIS SHIKHMURADOV: I will try to be short. I’m asked about my family’s –
(off mic) – times. I’ve been asked the same question, if I thought my father
had been dead or alive, because we never have heard anything about him since in
January 2008. And today here for the first time I will say no, I don’t – I
don’t think he’s alive. And this I say not because I have lost my hope, but
because unfortunately, I have gained some bitter experience.
Actually we all know that there’s absolutely no way to bring the leadership to
justice for human rights violations if it is somehow linked with security.
Because they want to continue dialogue with Turkmenistan, they get so mad when
asked about human rights violations. The international community prefers not
to – (off mic) – so what can be done? What we can do?
My father is a Russian citizen, so he has a Russian passport. He has always
been a Russian citizen. What did the Russian government do to provide consular
and legal assistance to this citizen? Nothing. Only at home is – (off mic) –
foreign affairs saying that they have made – (off mic) – about my father
because, like, about 30 letters on Russian minister of foreign affairs saying
that they unable to obtain information about my father because – (off mic) –
simply ignores not only some informal advice, but also official government
letters. They ignore its obligations – (off mic) – and they ignore all OSCE
recommendations. They ignore universal human rights declarations and they
ignore United Nations General Assembly resolutions that was offered several
times, like, I think, two or three times a resolution was adopted with a number
of recommendations, and none of them was accepted and none of them was
So we keep on asking the diplomats, we keep on asking the government officials
from different countries, we keep asking diplomatic missions to international
organizations, and we keep asking them for their assistance, but unfortunately,
the government of Turkmenistan and the president, President Berdimuhammedov and
his foreign minister, the one whom we talked about many times, they don’t care.
They have this – (off mic) – and they don’t care about what people say about
Our family is not the only one. Like there’s – (off mic) – in November 2002,
(more than 60 ?) people were arrested. It was of – that so-called
assassination attempt on President Niyazov’s life.
And I – of course, I don’t know all of them, but universally, I know about, I
would say, six or seven families who are in absolutely same situation as we
are. There are many rumors about some of prisoners being dead already, being
buried already, being – like, being thrown out of jails like – because
sometimes they say that they just – they don’t – they don’t let relatives even
have a chance to see their fathers and brothers for the last time. Sometimes
they just throw bodies out of the gates and just let relatives take it. So
some of these families are outside of the – (inaudible) – some of them live in
the U.S. here. I know one family, they stayed in Boston, and I don’t know why,
but, like, they – I think you talked to them, yeah, but they did not come here
because they have some – they have somebody left in Turkmenistan. And even
being Americans already, people are afraid of talking too much.
Some of the families are in Turkmenistan. Those are in a very, very difficult
situation because they don’t know even about their chances, like I have a
chance to sit here in front of you and talk to you, but those people who are in
Turkmenistan, they don’t even know about what is happening outside. They don’t
even know that somebody cares about political prisoners. And these people,
they definitely – I think that they already lost their hope. I don’t know,
like – (inaudible) – what can be done to change the situation because all these
experts who just now reported to us here, they’re absolutely right. It is –
sometimes it is very difficult to believe in what they say, but yes, it is – it
is definitely right.
And what they say about the recommendations to national governments, to
international organizations, this is all right things to do. But will it
happen or not? Nobody knows, and it depends on how – it very much depends on
how the public will react. And this is actually the answer to that question.
So what can be done? This situation should be discussed publicly. And that –
and as much information needs to be – needs to be made public about the
situation in Turkmenistan. It is difficult to get information from inside the
country, but there are some people who risk their lives delivering important
information about the current situation in the country because being outside,
like sometimes we don’t know exactly what is happening there, and we very much
rely on those people who deliver – (inaudible) – information.
So – (inaudible) – I think to answer to the questions, if there are any. And I
think that – (inaudible) –
HELWIG: Thank you. Thank you, Boris.
SHIKHMURADOV: Thank you.
HELWIG: So I’d like to open it up for comments and questions from the
audience. When you speak, if you would identify yourself, and please speak up,
because I’m afraid I don’t have another microphone to pass around.
Q: (Off mic) – and I’d like to ask you about – actually, you made me think
about the idea of communication with people in Turkmenistan, because as
governments (do ?) respond, the epicenter of the information comes from
Turkmenistan, right? So – (inaudible) – people – they have no idea –
(inaudible) – so it means that they can react to what’s happening. So by using
– (inaudible) – international organizations, it seems that it doesn’t work, or
you see actually no results, and it somehow – I wouldn’t say it’s ineffective,
but maybe we should think about another way how to maybe contact the people who
are inside by using social science or, I don’t know what’s the – I –
(inaudible) – from Turkmenistan use social science – (inaudible) – connection
and try to somehow – (inaudible) –
SHIKHMURADOV: You know, whatever is happening now in Ukraine could never
happen in Turkmenistan because they never allow more than two, three people get
together. So they just start killing immediately. They don’t let the
situation go that far. No, so if you mean social networks, social networks are
not allowed, even if technically it is possible, because now, like – there are
hundreds of technical ways to use social network websites, but people are so
much afraid that nobody would take that risk.
HELWIG: Rachel, did you have something you wanted to add –
DENBER: I would just – I would just – I tried to be very brief during my
presentation, so I didn’t talk about the limits that are put on Internet
interaction in Turkmenistan. There are a lot of people – there are people
online in Turkmenistan. I don’t want to give the impression that that – that
people aren’t online, that there – you know, that it’s totally cut off from the
Internet community. It’s highly regulated and highly restricted in
Turkmenistan. Internet – I mean, to go an Internet – many people just –
Internet connection is quite expensive in Turkmenistan. You have to assume
that it’s fairly heavily monitored because of the – you know, basically the
monopoly provider. Internet cafes are also highly – I mean, from what we
understand, are also highly regulated. You know, you have to provide your
passport, and you have to sign in, provide your passport information, et
cetera. Websites are blocked – many websites – not all websites, but many
websites are regularly blocked – I mean key websites.
But there is still – from what we understand, there is still communication
through Facebook now from Turkmenistan, through – I think also through
Contactia and through other, like, Russian-language platforms. And one of the
reasons why we know that is because – is as you might remember, I mentioned
briefly a couple of minutes ago that there was a Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty reporter in Turkmenistan who had been – who was briefly arrested and
then – and then released. And when we were trying to understand what it was
that led to his arrest, because he didn’t write – he didn’t – the stuff that he
reported on wasn’t terribly – wasn’t terribly anti-government or critical, one
of the – one of the – you never really know in Turkmenistan why someone gets –
why someone gets arrested, but one of the – one of the potential theories was
that he had written an article about – I believe about – maybe having to do
with women wearing headdress, you know, wearing Islamist (sic) headdress, you
know, like her scarf, tied this way and not the typical Turkmen way, or the
traditional Turkmen way, I mean.
And his – what he – it was on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s website, and it
generated a huge response. Many people were commenting on it, and it seemed
that they were from inside Turkmenistan. And that was – that was the – and the
theory was that this guy’s in trouble. He’s causing trouble because he’s
getting – he’s getting people involved in a debate. So that just – I’m giving
you that example just to show that people are online, but it’s very difficult.
So using soft power is difficult. It’s also potentially very dangerous for
people who would the recipients of soft power. That doesn’t mean that one
shouldn’t – I think that does not mean that international organizations, that
foreign entities, intergovernmental organizations, it doesn’t mean that they
should not try to use social networks to spread information about human – about
human rights, about what’s happening in the outside world. I’m saying that
they are – I think we should all be aware of what the – what the dangers are
for people who are actually inside Turkmenistan to using that.
FITZPATRICK: Can I – can I add some to that?
Q: Cathy Cosman, U.S. Commission –
HELWIG: Hey wait, Cathy, I think the other Cathy wanted to add one more
FITZPATRICK: Can I – can I just – can I just add –
Q: Oh, sorry.
FITZPATRICK: The whole issue of the social media and the Internet is something
I followed quite a bit with Turkmenistan. There’s actually people who check in
on Foursquare from Ashgabat, if you can believe it. They usually check it in
the TV tower. But then they publish Instagram photos of their shopping because
they’re the children of the – of the officialdom. There are people that
publish YouTubes of their classrooms, but they can afford the expensive
Internet connection. There is – there is people on Twitter. The ambassador of
the United States started an account on Mail.Ru because that embassy in
Ashgabat that we have has enormous investment and trying to do social media.
He has 8,000 friends, OK? And now maybe half of them are FSB agents –
(laughter) – but a lot of them are just, you know, 18-year-old kids who want to
go to school in the United States.
And that’s the problem with this theory of change through the Internet is that
a lot of what it drives in is the desire to leave, and people do leave. And
maybe they only get as far as Kyrgyzstan, but it’s that much better. They
don’t come back. They’re not a force for social change. There’s a whole
theory of how the middle classes in these countries, as they become more
affluent and as they use the Internet, maybe they use it for their cats, but
eventually they’ll rebel – well, guess what. It doesn’t happen that way in
these countries. They become a force to prop up the government more, and –
unlike some of the Arab Spring countries. And Berdimuhammedov knows that, and
that’s why he hands out 2,000 free iPhones to students going to Turkey. And
they might go on, you know, Facebook or whatever, but they’re wired into his
regime. And it’s – we really have to take a second look at that whole theory
of trying to – I’m all for using it and I do use it, but I think you have to
look at what you are strengthening when you empower people with social media.
It’s not necessarily the factors of change that you’d want to see.
ZALMAYEV: That’s Evgeny Morozov’s line, right, that he’s kind of been arguing?
FITZPATRICK: No, that’s not Morozov’s line. Morozov has a whole different
line where he – he’s soft on the regimes, in the end, because he thinks they’re
so powerful that they should just – you know, we should concede that, so – it’s
– we can have that discussion later. It’s a different – (inaudible).
HELWIG: OK. Cathy?
Q: Cathy Cosman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. I’m very
glad there’s been some discussion of religion. I believe you were referring to
hijab, not Islamist headdresses, but hijabs –
DENBER: Hijab, exactly.
Q: – which are traditional – yes, and –
DENBER: And not – as opposed to the – as opposed to the tied behind your ear –
DENBER: – Turkmen – typical – traditional Turkmen pattern, but tied under the
– tied under the chin.
Q: Correct, yes. But they’re not Islamist.
DENBER: Sorry. Yes. Sorry.
DENBER: I meant to say hijab, yes.
Q: Yeah. But anyway –
DENBER: The term left my mind for a brief, yeah, lapse.
Q: Also, there has been a U.N. special rapporteur who went to Turkmenistan –
DENBER: The religion one.
Q: Yes, exactly, in 2008, also went to Hungyr (ph). She wrote a kind, well,
upbeat report. But, you know, they first like to – (inaudible) – general
picture fairly I guess is one way of putting it.
And I would also say that the group that most of these countries in Central
Asia with majority Muslim populations, their religion laws are aimed at the
majority population. Of course, it affects all religious groups, but if you –
if you’re a politician in any country, you think of what is the group which can
potentially offer political – can be mobilized for political resistance. And
that’s obviously the majority of religion in the majority of the cases. So
while here we may hear more about problems of conscience, objectively speaking,
I think it’s true that it’s Muslims who feel the majority of the – who feel the
impact of the restrictions, the multiple restrictions on religion law.
I do think it’s also significant that when Berdimuhammedov was on his great
charm offensive back in 2007, he did release seven political prisoners,
including the former grand mufti of Turkmenistan, who had been accused of
alleged involvement in the alleged assassination plot against Niyazov. We –
the commission on which I serve on the staff, we met both with Berdimuhammedov
and with Ivadullah (ph), the ethnic Uzbek former grand mufti of Uzbekistan, and
in fact, we participated in a celebratory dinner to mark his release from
prison. Since then he’s not been allowed to return to his Uzbek majority
region bordering Uzbekistan. He now serves, I believe this is still true, as
an informal adviser to the committee on religious affairs, where he – I guess
he’s still an adviser to that group, which of course implements the religion
law, such as it is, which is pretty restrictive.
I wanted to call attention also to one other case of someone who has – who was
returned to Turkmenistan from Sweden in the – in 2011 under the mistaken belief
by the Swedish government that all was, you know, OK now in Turkmenistan under
Berdimuhammedov – namely, this 32-year-old son of two correspondents from
RFE/RL. His name is Keymir Berdiev. He had been living in Russia I guess for
10 years. Maybe he’d lived in other countries in Western Europe, and he ended
up in Sweden hoping that he was safe there. Unfortunately, he was not. He was
forcibly returned. When he received the news that he would be forcibly
returned, he tried to commit suicide. Nevertheless, he was returned. Some of
us tried to prevent that unsuccessfully informally. So I just wanted to add to
the fact that as far as I know, no one has heard anything further from him. I
don’t know whether anyone is here from RFE/RL, but I would hope that they
continue at least to try and find out about his situation because both of his
parents were prominent correspondents from RFE/RL.
And finally, I did want to also mention that forced labor in cotton in
Turkmenistan is also a problem, and I would hope that human rights groups pay
some attention to that. Of course, it’s gotten deserved attention in
Uzbekistan and to some extent in Tajikistan, but as far as I know, Turkmenistan
has been left off the list.
DENBER: Thanks, Cathy. There are actually a lot of things that I would have
liked to have talked about in this overall introduction to Turkmenistan that I
Forced labor in cotton was certainly one of them. And we’re absolutely aware
that it’s an – that it’s an issue. There’s been some pretty – recently there
was a – there’s been good documentation about it, and it’s publicly available
now by an – by an NGO. It’s managed to give information out.
Another issue that we didn’t get to talk about that – but that affects many –
the lives of many people in Turkmenistan is unfair compensation for housing –
for house demolitions that are demolitions that are done in order to – either
for, you know, beautification or urban renewal or just the construction of
parks and monuments and such. We – actually, Human Rights Watch has documented
– we managed a couple of years ago to actually interview people whose – who
were – whose homes were expropriated from them and with very – with very poor
levels of compensation and in some cases no compensation at all.
So there is a whole array – I mean, when you have a – when you have a political
system that is so utterly – I don’t like to use – I don’t like to, you know, to
use exaggerated terms, but I don’t know what other terms to use other than
tyrannical or extraordinarily arbitrary. When you have a political system that
is utterly unaccountable, it’s no surprise that the lives of ordinary people
who have nothing to do with politics are impacted, you know, because they can’t
get – they – you know, any interaction that they have to have with their local
– with their local government, just for everyday things, whether it’s your
pension; whether it’s, you know, your house; whether it’s demolition; whether
it’s, you know, your bills, everything is subject to arbitrary – to the
arbitrary actions of local officials.
So I mean – and if that’s the way it is for people – you know, people in
everyday life, you can – you can imagine what it’s like for people who have in
any way distinguished themselves by having the courage to be critics or having
the bad luck to be a rival.
FITZPATRICK: You know, we probably should have started with this, rather than
ended with this. I mean, we could endlessly talk about the cases, but I think
we really need to cut to the heart of why our country does not do anything
about Turkmenistan, because it can’t. I mean we’re heavily reliant on the
access through airspace in Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, whether it’s the
Northern Distribution Network, which is the passageway for all the nonlethal
material to go to the troops, the NATO troops, and in Afghanistan we have – we
pay hundreds of millions of dollars to be able to land, fuel and then take
freight into Afghanistan.
And there’s – some hope was held out by some officials that we’ve been, you
know, raising these cases with for many years that things would get better as
we withdrew troops and we’d start going in the opposite direction and pass
through the NDN.
But what I’m seeing is that – I think that probably that’s not going to change,
at least in the near term, because I think that, you know, we will have to keep
supplying – we just gave a huge tranche to Afghanistan itself. We’re trying to
do development work, you know, provide schools and food and so on, and arrange
electricity transfers in the region and so on. I think we’re – you know, that
relationship’s going to hold.
It’s also a listening post on Iran, and one of the big revelations that came
from WikiLeaks and probably ruined a lot of information channels – when things
that, you know, like Iranian truck drivers would drive in across the border,
you know, into Turkmenistan, which for them was a holiday – I mean, try to
imagine your life if that was your holiday – and then they would, you know,
pump them for information.
And so I don’t think this is going to change. What I think you can do with
these regimes, though, is you could stop conferring legitimacy on them. And
you can’t always do it by speaking out, but you can do simple things, like one
of the things that I find really most egregious is that Berdimuhammedov’s – one
of his most prized possessions is a picture of himself with Obama and his wife
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It’s kind of a photo bomb
picture, if you will, because Obama didn’t actually meet with Berdimuhammedov.
He didn’t actually sign any pipeline deals with him. He actually got nothing
out of him for, you know, all – the whole time he’s been in office. But there
was this nice reception where there was some Turkmen jewelry on display, very
nice Turkmen jewelry. I went myself.
And so that sort of thing, that social milieu that we hope would be
transformative, in fact is used to legitimize the regime. I mean, you have
horrible things like German doctors going and performing an operation on a
hapless fellow with the dentist in chief there, Berdimuhammedov himself, who
has a medical degree – operating on a guy. Imagine the German medical
profession going and taking part in a charade like that.
So these kinds of legitimizing exercises that we can control and we don’t have
to do, we don’t have to lay these optics on with this regime, and I think I –
my colleagues and I disagree about this, and we can debate it, but I think we
need to pare down some of these human rights festivals that we have in
Ashkhabad, I mean, where we send Oxford professors and, you know, professors
from Missouri to go and teach human rights to the same 20 officials that have
already been in the last zillion sessions. I mean, if I see that woman with
the beehive hairdo once again getting trained by one of our, you know – I’m –
you know, I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen that kind of thing
And you know, I think we can – we can still engage with them. We can find ways
to sort of have, you know, like the ABCs, what they call the – what does that
stand for? –
HELWIG: Annual bilateral consultations.
FITZPATRICK: Annual bilaterals. We have those things. So you know, maybe we
could cut down on the sort of shows. And the oil – and the annual oil and gas
– why are – why do we go to that? We don’t have a pipeline. We didn’t get a
pipeline out of these people for 15 years. Why do we keep going to the
So – end rant.
But I think we can look for opportunities like that and help undermine their
standing in the world, which they achieve when – when we – when they can have
pictures with us.
HELWIG: OK. Maybe we have time for a couple more questions. Is there anybody
else that would like to ask a question?
Q: My name is Chari (ph). I am a Turkmen native. So I used to work for the
embassy. And I want to talk – when we talk about (Afghanistan or ?) Turkmen
society, I think it’s important to mention one way that people – (inaudible) –
at this point it’s a very unengaged society, because since – (inaudible) – came
into power, it was not – (inaudible). And he understood perfectly that –
(inaudible) – (yet it frankly ?) happened because of (economic expansion ?),
you know – (inaudible) – plus because it came from (even Afghanistan ?). The
main threat to power is educated people. He understood this perfectly, and
from his very first day, his policy was, you know, aimed at completely,
completely – (inaudible) – education. You know what he did – (inaudible). He
changed 10-year education to nine-year. He, you know – basically, you know,
all of his classes was about – (inaudible) – but at the same time many teachers
was forced out of the country.
SHIKMURADOV: And he removed mathematics from the curriculum. So they removed
it – totally removed this subject.
Q: Yeah – (off mic). (Just how many ?) years?
SHIKMURADOV: (It’s going ?) almost –
Q: (Fifty years ?).
It is not even possible to compare with any other – (inaudible). It is
completely, completely (uneducated ?) society. It’s not only that they have
(economical message ?) – (inaudible). This is the policy which completed their
mission. This is what’s going on.
And what is interesting in this – knowing that – keeping that in mind, how is
this possible? And the government – you know, there is (no basically
governance ?) – (inaudible) – you know. (This uneducated are taking government
?). How they can manage to keep it a secret? Where is – (inaudible)? It’s an
impression – (inaudible) – somebody from (other planet taking care of them ?),
even though – (inaudible) – because if the culture (and society ?), you cannot
hide this stuff, you know, but it’s not – (and I know that ?) those who (take
care of prison changed ?) – (inaudible) – in Turkmen society (rumors going
between ?) – (inaudible). It’s not possible, you know, to – you cannot even
(hear ?) – look, I saw (him ?) over there. He was there, you know. It is not
possible in this society. It’s – what is amazing is, who is charge of that is
so carefully kept secret. Nobody can know what (happened to them ?), and
(there isn’t ?) – because there is no way (to learn ?).
HELWIG: Anybody want to comment?
DENBER: I’d like to make a couple of comments. I think that’s a – that’s an
excellent point that – that’s the key question, I think, that you raised, Chari
(sp), and that’s how can they keep up this charade of pretending they don’t
know, because I think that our campaign Prove They Are Alive is to make the
government acknowledge – is to make it – have some kind of official
acknowledgement about the fate and whereabouts of these people disappeared. Of
course there’s – I mean, you know, thus that all kinds of information flies
around through informal networks. You know, I’ve talked to families – at least
one family who talked about how she got – not from this campaign but from
another person who had been imprisoned and who has recently died in prison –
how they managed to get information out about – how she managed to get – how
she managed to get information about her father and what kind of information –
who was imprisoned and what other kind of information managed to get out about
other prisoners in that prison.
Through informal networks – they change the guards – they change the guards
very frequently precisely in order to prevent information from getting out,
precisely to keep people in a state of confusion. So there’s a whole
elaborated mechanism for keeping information secret, for keeping people in
confusion. And despite that system, information still gets out. It gets out
informally. I would not be surprised if many of the people who are in – who
are the – who are featured in this campaign – I would be – not be surprised if
their families already have a lot of information informally.
But that’s not the point. Of course you can get information informally. The
point is that the government has to acknowledge it.
Why – and what I think is interesting is how the government avoids the issue.
We were – we were talking before about how, whenever the – whenever the topic –
whenever the subject of the disappeared comes up, the response on the part of
the government – well, the government – I think you’re right that it’s a bit
even odd to call it “government.” The response on the part of the authorities,
Berdimuhammedov and the people who are – and the officials who are under him,
they get hysterical. They yell. They scream. They say, these people aren’t –
they’re not political prisoners and they’re not this, they’re not that. You
know, they’re criminals, blah, blah, blah.
That’s not the point. The point isn’t who they are or why they’re in jail.
The point is, are they dead? Are they alive? Where are they? Why can’t they
talk to their families?
So they don’t – they won’t engage. I mean, it’s a – it’s a game of – kind of
like a game of denial and a game of mirrors.
Also, there’s a – another theory is that if they – if Berdimuhammedov were to
acknowledge that these prisoners – acknowledge anything about them, it’s like –
it’s almost like acknowledging that they were – their own complicity, because
if they were – if they have been – if they’re – if they – if they died and if
they died under suspicious circumstances, then someone’s head has to roll.
Someone’s responsible for that. And if they acknowledge – and if they
acknowledge that they’ve been basically officially disappeared for the past –
well, how long has he been in office now? Since 2007? So for the past seven
years – if they have – if they acknowledge that for the past seven years that
these people – yes, they were disappeared, they were in – you know, we did have
information about them but didn’t reveal it, well, then they’re complicit in a
pretty serious human rights violation.
HELWIG: Kate, did you want to comment?
WATTERS: Yeah, I mean, just absolutely I think you’ve hit the issue on the
head. It’s this combination of systematic destruction of an educational
system, which leaves a society where you don’t have a lot of people who are
engaging in critical thinking in the way that we understand it – I think the
other issue is fear.
And I think that when the regime, the authorities, the president, whoever it
is, when they behave so atrociously and the information that we have about the
disappeared is horrific, the details – the information is horrific, the status
of the prisons is horrific, the location of the prison is horrific, and some of
these people are in Novadan Daipau (ph), which is in the middle of a desert,
where it’s over 40, 50 degrees Centigrade in the summer and freezing cold in
the winter, and we don’t know – do they have electricity, do they have air
conditioning, do they have access to water, do they have access to – I mean,
the information that is out there is so horrific that the notion that you would
then risk speaking about that and risk that – not for yourself, maybe, but for
your loved one, whether they’re inside the system or could be put into that
system, is enough to keep you quiet.
And I think the other piece is the legacy of the Soviet period and the legacy
of Stalinism and the legacy of all the – the people who are educated, the
generations that do have those – that educational knowledge base, they remember
that. They remember Stalinism. They remember the disappeared from before.
And that makes for a very toxic mix.
HELWIG: One final question?
Q: Just maybe a quick reaction. Akma (sp) from Freedom Now. The two points
that – just to continue on the discussion on social networking and why it
doesn’t work and then the level of literacy, and coming from Uzbekistan,
working on Uzbekistan, I can compare two countries, perhaps, and I think you
don’t have those problems in Uzbekistan. Social networking is still fine.
Yes, some of the opposition are blocked, their website are blocked but
generally can – people use Facebook, YouTube. YouTube has lots of clips of
(people ?) of the government, Karimov, his family and others, and you can watch
that. And is Facebook – those websites that are blocked in Uzbekistan are
posting on Facebook as a note, and everyone can see it and read it if he or she
At the same time, literacy level is relatively better, maybe. Yeah, there is
not that severe clash on education, though social sciences are dying. It’s
But I think the second factor that Kate brought up is this fear that is more
important, that keeps people from speaking out. If you recall, everyone who
works in this field know that at the very early stages of independence of
Central Asian countries, scholars were saying that the fact that the level of
literacy is high gives hope that the level of democratization would be fast,
and it will be – (inaudible) – that there will be – there will be some good
hopes that it will work out, because I think the fear of – the fact of fear is
really high. And I even if a person is very educated, he knows from the social
networks and information the level of – the atrocious human rights violations
happening on a daily basis, still people are very, very afraid of speaking out
and maybe mobilizing against the government because of the persecution
HELWIG: Thank you.
Would any of our panelists like to say anything in closing?
WATTERS: I’d like to just – I would like to just thank you all for coming, but
I also want to say if anyone has any information about disappeared, any
information that you think could be useful to the campaign, please do contact
us at our website, provetheyarealive.org, and at an email address,
email@example.com. Please email us, write us, contact us, call me,
take my business card. We’re looking to gather information. So any way that
you feel you can be useful, we’d be grateful for that.
FITZPATRICK: I have, I guess, a question for – (inaudible) – about – we were
discussing the Magnitsky list idea. I’m all for trying to add to the Magnitsky
list, which we can now do because of other developments, but I wonder if you
could make a Magnitsky list for Turkmenistan, because the people who did the
persecutions themselves, some of them are disappeared, like Rejepov, and so on.
I mean, I – it’d be interesting to try to make a list of who you think is
responsible and then see if you can then add them. But I’m just wondering if
that approach is useful as the other approaches that focus on the victims
rather than the prosecution of the perpetrators. It’s just a question of
tactics. I – just if you have an opinion on that.
SHIKMURADOV: Well, I just want to say I think – I will repeat again that if
using – (inaudible) – that there is a human dimension, political dimension and
economic dimension. So in the human dimension in Turkmenistan, zero – nothing?
Political dimension also – it is not the strong point, because, like this poor
minister of foreign affairs, he is actually the only one who can at least – who
can speak and represent his country. Again, he’s being attacked like
everywhere he goes. And he has to say that no – that foreign diplomats, they
don’t speak about human rights and political problems in Turkmenistan publicly,
but informally of course they try to raise these issues, which makes him very
nervous, and he – like Peter was there, because – like the – one of the most
interesting things happened – it was in Brussels or in Geneva where the –
ZALMAYEV: In Maastricht.
SHIKMURADOV: – ah, Maastricht, yes, when he saw – when he came into the big
hall or big conference hall, and he saw two Turkmenistan opposition members,
and he started shouting that the building is in danger because terrorists are
there. And so he was trying to bring (public ?) security officers there.
So like this is Turkmenistan’s policy – political dimension, nothing. So there
is only economic – so only economic issues that keeps this country alive, this
regime alive. And I’m not – I’m not speaking about Turkmenistan’s economy
itself, because it is corrupted, it is definitely not transparent, like
transparency level’s zero, but it continues living because of the foreign
companies, like – including some oil and (gas ?) giants and some heavy
machinery producers and some traders of – (inaudible) – oil and gas traders and
the development – who agree to come to Turkmenistan and to work there and to
play by the local rules that – (inaudible) – Internet.
So this is what we should attack. This is what we should target our attention
to. And I think that if – Turkmenistan government – Turkmenistan government –
(inaudible) – they don’t care about what people say about them. They accept
all this strange and, you know, bizarre, like – (inaudible) – laws, rules,
regulations changing (months to ?) – (inaudible) – and changing, like – making
golden statues of the president and then moving it around the city from one
place to another. They don’t care. They just do whatever they want to do.
But why American companies don’t care about what people say about all this, I
don’t know. (Inaudible) – economy – (the economic – the economic regulations
?) keeps this regime alive. This is what I – (inaudible).
HELWIG: OK. Well, I would like to thank everybody very much for coming and I
think we’ll end on that note. Thank you.
[Whereupon, at 4:46 p.m., the briefing ended.]