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Turkmenistan: Government Further Tightens Control Over Travel, Opposition, Media

  • Antoine Blua

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is being accused by international observers of continuing a harsh crackdown on his opponents and of stepping up border security following a failed assassination attempt against him last November. RFE/RL looks at the latest developments.

Prague, 7 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov this week signed a resolution passed by the National Assembly, the country's highest legislative body, that defines the term "high treason."

Turkmen newspapers printed a list of the crimes that are now considered treasonous, including an assassination attempt on the president, an attempted coup, the revelation of state secrets, abuse of power, and attempts by officials to sow doubt about the president's domestic or foreign policies.

People found guilty of high treason, the resolution adds, face life in prison and are exempt from amnesty, a postponed sentencing, parole, or a transfer to a penitentiary with a less strict regime.

Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna, told RFE/RL that this resolution is consistent with other recent crackdowns by the Turkmen government and further reveals its totalitarian character. "What one can see there is that all the definitions are very imprecise. And imprecise definitions are always favored by totalitarian regimes, because they allow those regimes to apply laws in an arbitrary manner, so that officials and those in power can make decisions about what they want to do with other people and not be constrained by the law. It's the kind of rule of law that is completely contrary to the notion of the rule of law because of its imprecision and its vagueness. It's a frightening law, I think, because what it shows is that no one is safe in that country," Rhodes said.

Observers say Turkmenistan's poor human rights record has deteriorated even further following the assassination attempt on Niyazov last November. Gunmen opened fire on his motorcade as he was traveling through the capital, Ashgabat.

The Turkmen newspaper "Adalat" (Justice) recently published the names of 51 "traitors, terrorists, and enemies of the people" who have all have been sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths for their alleged participation in the November plot. The majority were sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Seven received life terms, including former Foreign Minister and opposition leader Boris Shikhmuradov. The former head of the Turkmen Central Bank, Khudaiberdy Orazov, and the former ambassador to Turkey, Nurmukhammed Khanamov, were sentenced in absentia.

As part of a package of security measures enacted this week in response to the assassination attempt, Turkmenistan decided to establish a service to tighten already strict regulations on the activities of foreign nationals within the country. The new body, to be set up by 1 March, will be headed by Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov. "We are now organizing in [Ashgabat] a state body. This state service must work for six months. The border service, customs, the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and the KNB [the Turkmen security service] must continue surveillance. Up to now, we couldn't check everything," Niyazov said.

The new service, to be called the State Service for the Registration of Foreigners, is expected to advise Turkmen embassies abroad about which applications for visas should be granted or denied. Foreigners will also be required to pay $10 at border posts for the right to enter Turkmenistan. A visitor will face prosecution if he or she does not register a place of residence within three days.

Furthermore, Niyazov ordered that a computer network be set up to collect information about each person who enters the country. The head of the presidential administration's legal department, Murad Islamov, will be in charge of this new network.

Rhodes said these kinds of measures show that the government is not acting on behalf of Turkmenistan's citizens but is acting only to ensure the protection of the "ruling clique." "Turkmenistan: It's not really a state in a normal sense. It's more like a private prison. The people don't have any kind of freedom of movement. Turkmenistan needs involvement by other countries. It needs investments, it needs cooperation, it needs ways to provide the citizens with more opportunities for international engagement, and it needs assistance in solving its serious social problems, like drug abuse," Rhodes said.

Rhodes noted that the new commission will also make it difficult for former Turkmen officials to leave the country. Turkmen citizens will have to apply for exit visas. Those who are banned entirely from traveling abroad include people facing criminal charges, those who owe debts to the state, people who have had access to state secrets, and those eligible for the military draft.

Meanwhile, under a plan announced this week by Niyazov, all ministers, committee heads, regional bosses, and other top officials will receive a new Mercedes-Benz automobile every year. They were instructed by Niyazov to pass their old cars to their staff. "We have the right to have something to be proud of," Niyazov told a cabinet meeting.

The deterioration of Turkmenistan's human rights situation is drawing international attention. Amnesty International, together with a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, is planning an international action for 19 February, Niyazov's 63rd birthday. Amnesty is organizing worldwide demonstrations, discussions, and a letter-writing campaign in an attempt to persuade Turkmen authorities to respect their human rights commitments.

The United States criticized Turkmenistan last week for its apparent unwillingness to cooperate with an investigation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe into the attempt to assassinate Niyazov. Douglas Davidson, deputy head of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE, said the organization is deeply concerned by the many credible reports it has received that suspects in the assassination were tortured and their family members arrested.

Niyazov responded yesterday by instructing an aide in charge of the press service to monitor what media around the world are saying about Turkmenistan. "If anything wrong is said about Turkmenistan, you and other fellows must repudiate it immediately," Niyazov said.

The Turkish news website "Ayyildiz" yesterday reported that Turkmenistan has warned international media outlets against broadcasting or printing "misleading" reports about the country. The warning was contained in a letter written by the Turkmen Foreign Ministry and sent to major newspapers and television channels around the world.

(Gouvantsh Guerayev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)