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Central Asia Report: March 7, 2003


7 March 2003, Volume 3, Number 10

OSCE TRYING TO MAINTAIN A DIALOGUE AS THE TURKMEN DOOR SWINGS SHUT. Intent on smashing his enemies, real or imagined, following last November's alleged attempt on his life, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has shown himself to be increasingly dismissive of international criticism of his regime's human rights record -- not that he paid much heed previously, either. Nevertheless, on 3 March in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, Niyazov gave a hearing to Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the current chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). During their two-hour conversation, Scheffer did not effect any miraculous change of heart on the part of the Turkmen president. On the contrary, the two sides appear to have talked past one another. On key points, they diplomatically agreed to disagree. The egregious conviction of a Turkmen environmental activist the following day, however -- notwithstanding Niyazov's personal assurance to Scheffer that the prisoner would soon be freed -- was anything but diplomatic. It came across as the action of a perversely defiant regime determined to show that it will not be dictated to and seemingly hell-bent on flouting the norms and principles of the OSCE.

Scheffer had two main goals in going to Ashgabat. First, the OSCE chairman in office appealed to Niyazov and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov to cooperate with an OSCE mission looking into the conduct of the investigation into the assassination bid by Turkmenistan's security services and law-enforcement agencies, RFE/RL reported. The mission was mandated by the so-called Moscow Mechanism, whereby OSCE states may call for expert rapporteurs to report on the human rights performance of other countries in the organization. Ten states invoked the Moscow Mechanism in December. They did so after the U.S. mission to the OSCE officially inquired about the whereabouts of, and charges against, former Foreign Minister Batyr Berdiev, who was arrested in early December, AFP noted on 4 March. They were also responding to charges that suspects in the November attack were being tortured by Turkmen police and not receiving fair trials. In fact, a damning OSCE report on rights abuses in Turkmenistan, circulated in draft to Western news agencies last week, went much further than that. It said that mass arrests, reprisals against suspects' families, deportation to desert regions of the country, torture, and the forced use of drugs as means to obtain confessions have been widespread in the country since the hunt for conspirators and traitors began three months ago. The report added that the alleged attack on Niyazov has been used as a pretext for "large-scale violations of all the principles of due process of law," such as arbitrary detentions and show trials, RFE/RL reported on 3 March.

Ashgabat has ignored the Moscow Mechanism and refused to allow the designated rapporteur, French law professor Emmanuel DeCaux, to visit Turkmenistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2003.) It has also declined to honor an OSCE request that Turkmenistan mount an internal investigation of its own or appoint a commissioner to work with a foreign fact-finding mission. Niyazov did not budge in his meeting with Scheffer, who told journalists at a subsequent press conference that he saw no progress in implementing the Moscow Mechanism, Interfax reported.

Scheffer's second objective in visiting Ashgabat was just to keep a dialogue going at all between Turkmenistan and the OSCE. The country is in the midst of a general crackdown, with as many as 100 people detained in connection with an alleged conspiracy against the president and a host of new restrictions on locals and foreigners alike threatening to make this hermit kingdom even more isolated than it already is (see "Turkmenistan: OSCE Raises Human Rights Issues," rferl.org, 4 March 2003). Those restrictions include the requirement, starting 1 March, that Turkmen citizens obtain an exit visa before they can travel abroad. This move reinstates a system that the government abolished in January 2002 under pressure from the OSCE -- hailed at the time by the international community as a sign of progress, as the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) commented on 25 February. Furthermore, as of 1 March visas for foreigners are no longer issued directly by Turkmen diplomatic missions abroad or the Foreign Ministry's consular section but have to be approved by a special commission headed by Foreign Minister Meredov. This provision is sure to reduce the aliens allowed in to a tiny trickle. The few foreign visitors who do get in now may only stay at certain hotels approved by the National Security Ministry, and they need to register with the police and get a special migration card to be carried on their persons at all times while in the country, Interfax reported on 1 March. Turkmenistan is also in the process of creating a new service to control the activities of foreigners inside the country. The service is supposed to protect domestic markets and ensure that foreigners observe Turkmen laws (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003).

Another illiberal development is the new legislation on "betrayal of the motherland" that went into effect at the beginning of March. Approved by the republic's rubber-stamp Council of Elders on 30 December, the new treason law stipulates life imprisonment without possibility of pardon, amnesty, parole, or reduction of sentence for anyone labeled a traitor. Meanwhile, the law's wording is so vague that the term can encompass anybody voicing doubts about Niyazov's policies, the IWPR commented on 3 March. Both "encouraging opposition to the state" and "attempting to sow doubt among the people about the domestic and foreign polices conducted by the first and permanent president of Turkmenistan, "Saparmurat the Great," are treasonable offenses, according to the new law.

Under such circumstances, Scheffer may have reasoned that keeping a channel of communication open between Turkmenistan and the OSCE was achievement enough and probably the most he could hope for from his trip to Ashgabat. "It is clear after my discussion with President Niyazov that the president of Turkmenistan is willing to continue dialogue with the OSCE -- even if different opinions exist about the situation in the country and if mutual criticism is expressed," said Scheffer, as quoted in an OSCE press release of 4 March, which added that he stressed the importance of not closing the door on OSCE activities in Turkmenistan. He also expressed concern about a spectrum of human rights issues ranging from the treason law and travel restrictions to the fate of Turkmen prisoners of conscience and the conditions of inmates in the country altogether.

It is clear from reports of the meeting in Turkmen media, however, that Niyazov turned the conversation around to the requirements of security rather than the luxuries of freedom. He focused on the need to ruthlessly combat "terrorists," as the alleged conspirators against his life and opponents of his regime have been conveniently labeled. "Our respected leader underlined that no one has the right to protect and support terrorists, who reject moral principles, oppose the development of democratic society, and try to oppose reforms and progress toward prosperity. The OSCE chairman supported the view of the Turkmen leader," Turkmen TV said in its report of the meeting on 3 March. And according to the semiofficial website turkmenistan.ru, Scheffer agreed with the president's assertion that "terrorists should not be outside the law" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2003). One can almost hear Niyazov and Scheffer talking past one another in the latter's summary of their conversation, also carried on Turkmen TV: "Of course, we discussed fighting terrorism... I have told the president that nobody can ever defend terrorism and terrorist attacks. And I very much agree with him there. I have also said that due process and the rule of law and transparency are also very important elements in the framework of the OSCE...."

Needless to say, the Turkmen press did not report any dissension between the president and the chairman. The 4 March edition of the daily newspaper "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" concentrated on Scheffer's alleged impressions that democratic institutions in the country were being actively developed and that Ashgabat was "one of the most dynamic capitals in the world." Naturally, it also ignored the OSCE's damning report describing massive repression, torture, and deportation. Nevertheless, the authorities were sufficiently stung by the blistering criticism of Turkmenistan that attended European media accounts of Scheffer's trip to Ashgabat that the Turkmen Foreign Ministry issued a press release on 4 March, slamming "prefabricated, deliberate misinformation about the visit... based on conjectures and apparent falsehoods." Without ever identifying the nature of the alleged distortions, the document railed against "forces that are uncomfortable at the sight of Turkmenistan's burgeoning international prestige... disseminating reports known to be untrue by bribing dishonest journalists to misinform the world audience."

This press release from the Foreign Ministry, even if it is chock-full of bunkum, may be the most encouraging thing to emerge from Scheffer's trip to Turkmenistan. After all, the perception that Niyazov is indifferent to outside criticism has left Western human rights activists with frustratingly little leverage to shame the regime into improving its behavior. By the same token, the OSCE, as a standard-setting organization without enforcement mechanisms, is reduced to impotence when faced with a regime that really does not care what anybody thinks of it. The press release is a small but hopeful sign that the regime does care, at least a little, after all.

ECOLOGICAL ACTIVIST JAILED. Despite the foregoing, the regime apparently did not care enough about its international reputation to reconsider the case of 41-year-old Farid Tukhbatullin, co-chairman of the Ecological Club in the northern Turkmen town of Dashoguz, who was sentenced on 4 March to three years in prison. A statement issued on 5 March and signed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, the International League for Human Rights, and Russia's Memorial Human Rights Center condemned Tukhbatullin's conviction. The coalition of rights groups described him as an "innocent man, wrongly convicted in judicial proceedings that did not meet international standards for fair trial." The U.S. State Department also weighed in on 5 March, issuing a statement suggesting that the sentence was politically motivated and calling for his immediate release.

Tukhbatullin was arrested in December as part of the roundup of suspects in the wake of the assassination attempt against President Niyazov. He was charged with illegally crossing the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and failing to notify the authorities of a serious crime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 March 2003). As regards the border crossing, he maintained that the Turkmen police had neglected to stamp his passport when he reentered the country from Uzbekistan. As for the serious crime he supposedly was privy to, this was none other than the attack on Niyazov. He allegedly gained prior knowledge of it last year in Moscow when he attended a conference on freedom of expression organized by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Memorial Human Rights Center. Members of the Turkmen opposition in exile also apparently attended the conference, but according to participants the discussions did not include the violent overthrow of the government in Ashgabat (see "Turkmenistan: Rights Groups Protest Sentencing Of Activist," rferl.org, 5 March 2003). This does not exclude the possibility that they talked about a peaceful end to Niyazov's rule. In either case, Tukhbatullin, who is known for his role as a civil-society activist in Dashoguz, as well as his environmental-education work, would become an object of dire suspicion to the government. Also, ecology itself is a dangerous subject in Dashoguz; any discussion of the area's severe environmental degradation can veer into a possible criticism of Niyazov's environmental policies or lack thereof.

Niyazov assured visiting OSCE Chairman in Office Scheffer on 3 March that Tukhbatullin "will be released soon," Reuters reported. But on the following day, a district court in Ashgabat found Tukhbatullin guilty after a four-hour trial at which no witnesses testified. Trial observers were prevented from attending. Defense requests for the court to review exculpatory evidence were denied, the coalition of rights groups said on 5 March. Was this egregious exercise deliberately conceived as a snub to the OSCE? A number of human rights observers are indeed convinced it was, eurasianet.org said on 6 March. By brashly jailing Tukhbatullin, Niyazov may have believed he was thumbing his nose at Western officials who lecture him about rights but allegedly do not understand the specificity of Turkmenistan with its unique conditions and culture. On the other hand, leniency toward Tukhbatullin would have been interpreted as an attempt by the Turkmen government to bridge the gap with the OSCE. Apparently, a deliberate decision was made not to take that positive step. Why not? Sad to say, but Tukhbatullin may have been the victim of an act of spite by the president to take revenge against the OSCE for last week's report strongly criticizing Turkmenistan for rights abuses.

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