In a dozen years of one-man rule, President Saparamurat Niyazov [sah-pah-MOOR-aht nee-ahz-ov] has made Turkmenistan the most repressive country in central Asia. Turkmenistan’s economy has also spiraled downward, despite its large energy resources. Recently, there have been signs that the human rights situation is getting even worse.
On November 25th, gunmen attacked President Niyazov’s motorcade in Ashgabat. Since then, Turkmenistan authorities have reportedly arrested and detained more than one-hundred people, including several former government officials who had become critics of Mr. Niyazov’s rule. While any government has the right and duty to apprehend those involved in a violent attack on the president, Turkmenistan’s actions violate international human rights standards. Turkmenistan has conducted summary trials of alleged perpetrators of the attack without due process of law. There are also credible reports that some of the suspects have been tortured and confessions coerced.
One of those already convicted is Turkmen opposition leader Boris Shikhmuradov [shick-mur-AH-dov]. After a trial lasting less than a day, he was sentenced to life in prison. Mr. Shikhmuradov, a former Turkmen foreign minister and ambassador to China, broke with Niyazov’s administration in 2001. Two other former officials, now living in exile, also received life sentences, in absentia. In addition, Turkmen authorities have arrested relatives of opposition members and civil society activists who have no apparent link to the assault on President Niyazov.
Among those arrested is Leonid Komarovsky, a United States citizen. In violation of its international obligations, the Turkmenistan government has not allowed American diplomats regular and unsupervised access to him in detention. As Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, said, “It’s quite clear that many, many people have been arrested [in Turkmenistan] on an arbitrary basis and that the alleged assassination attempt is a pretext for a wave of repression in Turkmenistan.”
It is past time for Turkmenistan to live up to its obligations as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The crackdown on innocent members of the political opposition and their families must end. Those accused of crimes must be given due process. And the civil, political, and economic rights of the Turkmen people must be respected.