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Turkmen Report: September 23, 2003

23 September 2003
RFE/RL President Condemns Abduction, Threats Against Turkmen Service Correspondents
22 September 2003

RFE/RL President Tom Dine strongly condemned the violent abduction of Saparmurat Ovezberdiev, Ashgabat correspondent for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service by Turkmen National Security Ministry (MNB) officials in Ashgabat on 11 September, RFE/RL reported.

While in detention, Ovezberdiev was threatened with 15 years in prison, plus five years for "perjury," if he continued reporting for RFE/RL. Dine called the seizure and detention of Ovezberdiev a "provocation to all who value the freedom of the press." Dine also said, "Ovezberdiev's abduction is only the latest example of a two-decade-long series of threats and harassment against RFE/RL correspondents by the tyrannical government of Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov."

Ovezberdiev told RFE/RL that MNB officials forcibly removed him from a taxi on 11 September. The officials put a black hood over his head before driving him to an undisclosed location. Later, at an MNB office, he was injected several times with an unknown substance. During his detention he was not allowed any contact with friends, family, or co-workers. MNB officials, when asked by family members, denied that they were holding Ovezberdiev. Ovezberdiev was released from MNB custody on 13 September.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Naz Nazar said these "aggressive acts" against correspondents of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service are becoming more frequent and severe when compared to previous years. Ovezberdiev's abduction was the third attack against Turkmen Service correspondents in the last two months. In July Muhammad Berdiev suffered serious injuries when he was attacked and brutally beaten by two people on a street in Moscow. Berdiev's son, Shanazar, was beaten about the head by an unknown assailant wearing a police uniform in front of his Moscow apartment on 2 September, causing him to suffer a concussion. (RFE/RL)

U.S. Calls On CIS Countries To Uphold Religious Freedoms
19 September 2003 The U.S. on 19 September called on countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to uphold their commitments to religious freedoms, AFP reported the same day.

The U.S. State Department released a statement on 19 September after hosting a conference on religious freedoms earlier last week. The statement said the State Department had received reports of "troubling repression" of certain faiths in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Russia, and Belarus. The State Department urged the governments in those countries to ease restrictions and live up to their commitments. (AFP)

U.S. Won't Separate Rights And Economics In Turkmenistan
17 September 2003

The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on 17 September said the United States won't "close its eyes to human rights issues" in Turkmenistan for economic reasons, AP reported the same day.

Speaking in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, Ambassador Stephan Minikies said that issues of human rights and economic cooperation can't be separated. He then called on the Turkmen authorities to reverse their restrictive policies on human rights.

Minikies also criticized restrictions on the media in Turkmenistan. Last year, the OSCE's representative for media freedoms blasted Turkmen authorities for what he called the "absolute lack of freedom of expression." International rights groups have condemned the Turkmen authorities for a crackdown after last year's alleged assassination attempt on President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Earlier this year, the United States and several other OSCE members called for an investigation into the crackdown. However, U.S. companies continue to do business with Turkmenistan. (AP)

Niyazov Not To Attend CIS Summit In Yalta
17 September 2003

President Niyazov will not participate in the two-day CIS summit in Yalta on 18-19 September, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. Niyazov left for the Caspian Sea for a short vacation on the eve of the summit. (ITAR-TASS, Interfax)

European Media Rights Advocate Voices Concern About Media Freedom
16 September 2003 Freimut Duve, the OSCE's media freedom representative, on 16 September urged authorities in Russia and other ex-Soviet republics to end abuses and official persecution of journalists, AP reported the same day.

Duve, speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio, criticized new Russian legislation that puts tight restrictions on media coverage of parliamentary elections. Duve said Turkmenistan was the "most brutal" of all ex-Soviet nations, saying the government of President Niyazov is manipulating the media in the same way as the Nazis. He said the Turkmen media are forced to carry racist remarks in "a clear language of fascism" and transmit show trials of opposition politicians. (AP)

Niyazov Pledges To Develop National Railway
22 September 2003

A Railways Ministry has been formed in Turkmenistan, and Orazberdy Khudaiberdiev has been appointed railways minister by ordinance of President Niyazov, Interfax reported on 15 September. The ministry was formed on the basis of the Turkmendemirellary (Turkmen Railways) Department. Former head of the department and Deputy Prime Minister for Transport Berdymurat Redzhepov was appointed Turkmen ambassador to Germany.

Niyazov told heads of the Turkmen transport organizations that the country would expand its railways and develop the corresponding infrastructure. The railway-development program stipulates the construction of a railroad between Ashgabat and Dashoguz by 2005. The railroad will connect the Turkmen capital with the center of the extreme northern district. The railroad across the Karakum Desert will create jobs, boost regional development, and make it possible to develop new oil fields, the president said.

Niyazov said he would appoint a new deputy prime minister for transport within a month. (Interfax)

U.S. Sees Human Rights Backsliding In Ex-Soviet Union
10 September 2003

By Jeffrey Donovan

Despite some small signs of hope, Washington sees more setbacks than advances in democracy and human rights in many countries of the former Soviet Union. That, at least, was a key message conveyed yesterday by two U.S. assistant secretaries of state in testimony before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- an independent, bipartisan federal agency that promotes human rights.

Elizabeth Jones and Lorne Craner took part in the hearing on U.S. policy toward nations of concern in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a regional security group that includes all of Europe, the former Soviet Union, the United States, and Canada. The hearing addressed human rights concerns in such problem areas as Chechnya, Belarus, and Central Asia ahead of a key OSCE human rights meeting next month in Poland.

The U.S. diplomats said they see recent signs of progress on democracy and human rights in some places, such as the Balkans, while much of the rest of Eastern Europe gets ready to join NATO and the European Union next year. But they were quick to note that nations with significant problems on human rights and democracy usually took more steps backward than forward during the past year.

"When we look at countries in the region that have made extraordinary progress in the last 10 or 15 years, the lack of progress by other countries is all the more disheartening. It is most disheartening for the people of those countries who see other nations which have emerged from the Soviet empire now joining NATO and the EU and enjoying the fruits of democracy," Craner said.

Craner went on to talk about Central Asia. He said that despite increased U.S. ties to the region since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on America, which has led to increased U.S. aid, the picture remains mixed on Central Asia's democratic progress. "I've been telling the Central Asians that time is not on their side, that they need to show the U.S. and show the Congress that they are serious about reform, if they wish our relations to grow stronger and our assistance to continue," Craner said.

Among the problems Washington sees in Central Asia, Craner cited:

-- Tajikistan's "flawed" constitutional referendum, which could leave President Imomali Rakhmonov in office for another 14 years.

-- In Kyrgyzstan, besides a flawed constitutional referendum and decline in media freedom, there's an apparent lack of government accountability for last year's killing of five unarmed protesters. Craner said that without such accountability, "the rule of law will remain beyond reach for the Kyrgyz people."

-- In Kazakhstan, there's a lack of due process for political prisoners, and the U.S. is awaiting the enactment of legislation for the media, elections, and nongovernmental organizations that meets OSCE commitments.

-- In Uzbekistan, recent progress was cut short in May with the death of two prisoners by torture. There has been no credible accounting for these deaths, and coupled with the conviction of journalist Ruslan Sharipov and beating of his lawyer, Craner said Uzbekistan's commitment to human rights remains in question. Without addressing such issues, it will be difficult for U.S.-Uzbek ties to reach their potential.

-- In Turkmenistan, after a brief pause, the government is again suppressing religious freedoms. Craner added that government used the attempted assassination of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov to quash whatever opposition and civil society existed.

Elsewhere, Craner said, Armenia failed to make democratic progress when its elections earlier this year were marred by manipulation. He urged other countries not to make the same mistake as they look to upcoming elections that could greatly affect their democratic development. They include Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia. "As to the October presidential election in Chechnya, holding a democratic election in such an environment will be extremely difficult," Craner added. "Nonetheless, it is possible that a legitimate election could potentially contribute to the end of that conflict."

But Congressman Christopher Smith, co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, had some other tough questions on Chechnya ahead of U.S. President George W. Bush's summit later this month at his Camp David retreat with Russian President Vladimir Putin. "By admission of the official Moscow-backed authorities in Chechnya, there are 49 mass graves containing about 3,000 bodies in Chechnya. I wonder if you can tell us: will President Bush raise these atrocities with Moscow?" Smith asked. Craner's colleague Jones replied that Chechnya will be on Bush's summit agenda, but could not say whether he would bring up this issue.

Moving on, Jones acknowledged that in Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has cracked down on the independent media and civil society, Washington is running out of levers to promote change. But she added, "There's no question that it's very tough to influence Lukashenka, but the one area where we still have some ability to function is that there still is a bit of a free media, there's still a bit of a civil society, there still are activists in the Belarusian body politic who need and want the outside support and the moral support that we, the OSCE, the European Union can provide."

Jones said that even as those elements in Belarus come under further attack from the government, Washington, the EU, and the OSCE will carry on supporting them. But the diplomat added, "I won't hide from you that it's extremely difficult." (RFE/RL)