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Kazakhstan: Former Turkmen Political Prisoner Facing Deportation, Possible Torture

  • Antoine Blua

Former Turkmen opposition figure Gulgeldy Annaniyazov is in a Kazakh detention center after a failed attempt to flee to Moscow using forged documents. Annaniyazov, who spent nearly five years in jail for his role organizing an antigovernment protest in Ashgabat in 1995, began his journey in August by illegally crossing the Turkmen border into Kazakhstan, and faces certain imprisonment if he returns home. Now human rights groups are trying to convince Kazakh officials not to deport Annaniyazov, saying he risks torture and abuse if sent back to Turkmenistan.

Prague, 5 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Gulgeldy Annaniyazov was detained by Russian border guards at Moscow's Domodedovo airport on 1 September after he arrived on a flight from the Caspian port of Aqtau in western Kazakhstan.

Annaniyazov, a former Turkmen opposition figure who is forbidden to leave Turkmenistan, was carrying falsified documents. He had illegally crossed the Turkmenistan border into Kazakhstan several days before boarding the flight to Moscow.

Human rights groups and Russian immigration officials pressed the border service to allow Annaniyazov to remain in Moscow until his case was fully investigated. But despite assurances that no hasty decisions would be made, Annaniyazov was put on a plane just one day later, and returned to the Kazakh capital of Astana.

Vitalii Ponomarev heads the Central Asia department of Moscow's Memorial human rights center: "For reasons that are unknown, the [Russian] border office did not fulfill the request made by the migration office to investigate whether Annaniyazov had been harassed in Turkmenistan because of his political activities. He may have been returned to Kazakhstan under pressure from Turkmenistan, because Turkmenistan has special units working at Domodedovo Airport. And they have connections with the Russian border guards there."

Annaniyazov has been moved to a detention center in Pavlovar, in northern Kazakhstan, to await possible detention back to Turkmenistan. But rights officials like Ponomarev worry that if returned, the former opposition leader will face conviction for illegal border crossing and will be at grave risk of torture while in prison.

Annaniyazov has been banned from leaving Turkmenistan since his release from prison three years ago for his role in organizing an unprecedented antigovernment protest in Ashgabat in 1995.

Turkmenistan, which is widely viewed as the most repressive of the Central Asian states, released Annaniyazov ahead of a fact-finding visit by Human Rights Watch in an apparent attempt to reduce potential criticism from the watchdog group. But the former opposition leader, under constant threat of being returned to jail, has been unable to leave the country or resume his political activities.

It remains to be seen how Kazakh officials will respond to the situation. Yevgeniy Zhovtis heads the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Almaty, which is looking for a lawyer to represent Annaniyazov. Zhovtis says the Kazakh immigration service has yet to indicate how it may proceed in Annaniyazov's case: "Unfortunately, Kazakhstan does not grant refugee status to CIS citizens or [Uighurs] from the Xingjiang province of China. That is why we can say that the situation [Annaniyazov] is facing is very complicated. We don't know what Kazakh officials are going to do."

Anna Sunder-Plassmann of Amnesty International says her organization has urged Kazakh authorities not to extradite Annaniyazov to Turkmenistan, where she says he would be at serious risk of being tortured.

Plassmann says Amnesty International has received numerous reports of torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners in Turkmenistan. One such case involves the 1999 death in custody of Khoshali Garaev, who had been convicted of antistate crimes after being forcibly returned to Turkmenistan during a trip to Uzbekistan. Amnesty International believes Garaev's conviction may have been linked to his ties to exiled members of the Turkmen opposition. The unclear circumstances surrounding his death has led Amnesty to call for the release of Garaev's co-defendant, Mukhametkuli Aymuradov, who remains in prison and is reportedly in very poor health.

In Annaniyazov's case, Amnesty is hoping to convince Kazakhstan that deporting the former oppositionist would represent a clear violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which Kazakhstan is a party. Among other things, the convention prohibits the forcible deportation of a person to a state where there are substantial grounds for believing he or she would be in danger of being tortured.

Plassman says: "Kazakhstan is obliged under international human rights law not to deport him. Kazakhstan itself ratified the Convention Against Torture. We are working together with human rights organizations in Russia and in Kazakhstan on this case. We've informed embassies in Kazakhstan and different governments. And we have already heard that some of them will put pressure on the Kazakh authorities and remind them of their obligation under international human rights law."

Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov has enjoyed an unchallenged monopoly on power since the country gained independence in 1991. But since late last year, the ranks of the opposition have grown and efforts to oust Niyazov have intensified.

Boris Shikhmuradov, the Turkmen foreign minister in the 1990s, fled from his last official job as ambassador to China to set up the Turkmenistan National Democratic Movement, which he leads from exile. In the past months, other Turkmen officials -- the ambassadors to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, a former deputy prime minister, and a senior diplomat from Turkmenistan's embassy in Washington -- have joined Shikhmuradov in exile.

In June, a group of Turkmen exiles and activists met in Vienna to discuss human rights abuses in their home country. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, together with Moscow's Memorial center, sponsored the meeting, which ended with the formation of a unified opposition agenda urging international nongovernmental human rights groups and other humanitarian organizations to undertake a coordinated campaign to raise public awareness about repression in Turkmenistan.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh and Turkmen services contributed to this report.)