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Turkmenistan: OSCE Raises Human Rights Issues

The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is in Turkmenistan this week, where he raised the issue of human rights with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. Rights conditions in Turkmenistan are a continuing source of international concern, but the Turkmen government has widely ignored the criticism. RFE/RL asks what the OSCE can do in the present circumstance.

Prague, 4 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, this week paid a visit to Turkmenistan to discuss human rights. His trip coincided with a decree by President Saparmurat Niyazov that Turkmen citizens need an exit visa for traveling abroad and that foreign nationals who enter the country must register with a special state service within 24 hours of arrival. Those foreigners who do not comply with the new rule will be subject to a fine and face possible deportation.

Human rights activists describe the restrictions as part of a general crackdown following an assassination attempt on Niyazov late last year. Rights groups say as many as 100 people have been detained in connection with the assassination attempt, and there have been reports of torture and reprisals against suspects' families.

Stella Ronner, an OSCE spokeswoman, told RFE/RL that Scheffer raised the issue of the crackdown with Niyazov during their meeting yesterday in Ashgabat. "The chairman in office [Scheffer], in his meeting with the president [Niyazov], has assured the president that terrorism and terrorist attacks should be condemned and that the OSCE does understand that trials should take place but [that they should take place] in accordance with transparency and in accordance with the law, and, of course, taking into consideration the importance of due process," Ronner said.

It's not clear whether Scheffer words will have any effect. In the past, Niyazov has tended to ignore criticism of human rights conditions in Turkmenistan.

Steven Sabel, an expert on Turkmen affairs at the University of North Carolina, said Niyazov will probably ignore the call for improving human rights conditions. "Turkmenistan in the past decade has been very reluctant to take the advice and counsel of groups like the OSCE, the United Nations' human rights groups. They tend to ignore them. I would be very surprised if anything could be said [that] might alter the behavior of the Niyazov regime," Sabel said.

Most recently, Turkmen officials refused to cooperate with the newly appointed OSCE human rights expert, Emmanuel Decaux, who was not allowed to enter the country for a fact-finding mission.

Some suggest Turkmenistan should be suspended from the organization for failing to live up to its commitments as an OSCE member. But Sabel said that even the threat of suspension would hardly change Niyazov's behavior. "I think if the behavior continues, [suspension from the OSCE] would happen. And again, I don't know that [that] would change the behavior, particularly, since Turkmenistan in the past decade has been reluctant to be an active participant in multilateral organizations. I think suspending Turkmenistan's membership probably should happen but will have little consequence in Turkmenistan and probably will not alter the behavior of the leadership," Sabel said.

Bess Brown worked in Turkmenistan as a political officer for the OSCE from 1999 until 2002. She said that Turkmen leaders tend to dismiss those kinds of criticisms as coming from "foreigners who do not understand Turkmen culture and mentality." She insists, however, that the organization should continue a dialogue with Turkmenistan. She said the OSCE cannot make changes overnight but will have a positive effect in long run. "People there don't know what is meant by the term human rights in the international community. They know when they themselves are victims of injustice; they know when things are going badly in many respects. But there has been very little done so far to educate people about what their rights are," Brown said.

Jakub Swiecicki, an expert at the Swedish Institute of International Relations, said organizations like the OSCE should show the Turkmen people they are not being neglected and that the international community is aware of their problems. "It is important that visitors from such organizations and politicians from the international community talk not only to representatives of the regime but also to other people in such countries, like representatives of societies, representatives of oppositions, if such opposition exists. Those kinds of contacts are important. You should not expect an immediate result, but in the longer run these contacts are good," Swiecicki said.

Ronner said the OSCE and Turkmenistan agreed to continue a dialogue. She said the Scheffer is convinced the organization will continue to play an important role in Turkmenistan.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.