Hundreds of families in Turkmenistan have reportedly been forced to leave their homes near the Turkmen-Uzbek border and relocate to other parts of the country.
A listener of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service from the Niyazov district of the northern Dashoguz region sent a text message last week complaining about being forced to leave his house.
He said he knows about dozens of other families being removed from their homes in the Niyazov, Turkmenbashi, Koneurgench, Gubadag, and Gorogly districts and forced to move to other parts of the country.
"Local authorities ordered residents to move out before September. They said there won't be electricity and gas supplies after the deadline," he wrote.
He and several other listeners who contacted RFE/RL's Turkmen Service in recent weeks have added that no one received financial compensation for their property loss or to relocate. Local officials did offer some of them temporary shelter in an old school and a cultural center until they build their own houses.
Another listener told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service about a meeting he and his fellow villagers had with the district deputy governor. He said police standing at the door threatened villagers with arrest when they tried to ask questions about receiving financial compensation for their lost properties.
Tajigul Begmedova, the head of the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, says the authorities' actions are illegal. She says that "forceful relocation...is a violation of law and a violation of human rights. It also contradicts international law. And I think it is a hypocritical policy."Banished To The Desert
As for the motive behind the unpopular and seemingly illegal move, the authorities seem determined to try to populate new territories.
Most Dashoguz residents are reportedly being forced to move to a new district named Ruhubelent, in the country's northeast. It was set up in March 2007 by a decree issued by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
A Turkmen government website, turkmenistan.gov.tm, reported in March that "hundreds of families move to Ruhubelent every month."
The website quoted Ruhubelent Governor Sapargeldi Jumaev as saying that more than 2,000 families have moved to the new district since it was created.
But very few are likely to be tempted to voluntarily relocate to this desert and steppe area and its harsh weather conditions, although Turkmen state media have described it as "the land of plenty."
State media reported that the district administration buildings, the local office of the National Security Ministry, and a trade center were built in October. The construction of schools is not finished, and the gas, water, and electric infrastructures are also not yet completed.
As for the houses, the new residents are expected to build them themselves.
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service listeners say the government offers no financial reward for leaving everything behind and moving to this desert area. They say they are only given an opportunity to get a bank loan of some 50 million manats ($3,300).
Dashoguz region residents say that officials offered a vague legal explanation for the forceful relocations. They reportedly said that all territory within 500 meters of the Uzbek border must be cleared, according to the law.
In the Soviet Union, the opening of "virgin lands" was a common practice. Soviet media often told of thousands of Soviets enthusiastically moving to new lands, and it was often described as a human victory over nature.
Late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov engineered a similar plan. In 2002, he announced that people should be relocated to the Dashoguz, Lebap, and Akhal regions. The official reason given was the necessity to develop the country's desert areas.
Resembling an old Soviet practice used against dissidents, the policy targeted critics of the Turkmen government. The decree at the time spoke of relocating people who had "lost respect for the nations and threatened public order and peace."
Sazak Begmedov, the 77-year-old father of Tajigul Begmedova, was forcefully deported in 2003 from the capital, Ashgabat, to Dashoguz. Begmedova was living in Europe at the time and headed the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.
Begmedov was one of several Niyazov opponents forcefully relocated from Ashgabat.
Niyazov also sent several governors who had fallen from grace to desert areas and forced them to begin growing cotton.
Many ethnic-Uzbek families from the border areas experienced a similar fate after Turkmen authorities accused the officials in neighboring Uzbekistan of masterminding an alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov in November 2002.
The ethnic background of families who are currently being forced to relocate to Ruhubelent is not known. Up to 90 percent of the residents of the Dashoguz region are ethnic Uzbeks. Human Rights 'Fig Leaf'
The reports of the forced relocations come on the eve of a European Union human rights dialogue with Turkmenistan scheduled for June 24 in Ashgabat.
Amnesty International has called on EU and Turkmen authorities to demonstrate that human rights are an integral part of their interactions, and "not a fig leaf behind which either side is free to privilege economic cooperation."
In the June 23 report "Turkmenistan: No Effective Human Rights Reform," Amnesty said that despite Berdymukhammedov's promises, "widespread and systematic human rights violations" continue in Turkmenistan.
Another human rights group, the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, issued a statement on June 23 saying that violations of basic human rights are harsh and there is a gap between the government's pledges to implement positive changes and the reality.
Begmedova, of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, says that some Western media have been overly upbeat about the new Turkmen president's moves, considering that Berdymukhammedov has yet to show the political will to improve his country's human rights record.
She also calls on the Turkmen people to take an active stance and to fight for their rights. "The only way to solve this situation is for citizens themselves to defend their rights," she says. "They should not expect help from foreign governments, international organizations.... They must demand their constitutional rights."RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondents Allamurat Rakhimov and Guvanch Geraev contributed to this report