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Turkmen Report: March 11, 2003

11 March 2003
Niyazov Visits Iran
10 March 2003

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov arrived in Tehran on 10 March for an official two-day visit, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported the same day. The Turkmen and Iranian sides are expected to discuss a range of bilateral cooperation issues, including trade and exports of Turkmen natural gas to Iran.

The two sides are also expected to discuss the continuing stalemate over determining the status of the Caspian Sea and the division of the sea's resources among its littoral states.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said there is a huge potential in relations between Iran and Turkmenistan. (ITAR-TASS, Interfax)

New Laws Come Into Effect In Turkmen Capital
6 March 2003

Residents of the Turkmen capital Ashgabat have been receiving letters this week from the city administration informing them of new laws that pertain to Ashgabat residents, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported on 6 March. Residents there must register any gathering of people -- including weddings, funerals, or any other celebrations -- with city authorities in written form. In addition, the names of all people attending such events must be in a written form given to city authorities.

Those living in Ashgabat are also required to hang a state flag outside their place of residence. If a person owns a house, he or she must plant at least two trees and a flower bed outside the home and must take care to water them every day.

Stray cats and dogs must be reported to city authorities and residents of the capital must also live in their homes in "unity and harmony," though this law did not provide an interpretation or example of what that means. (RFE/RL's Turkmen Service)

U.S. Deplores Conviction Of Turkmen Environmentalist Farid Tukhbatullin...
5 March 2003

The United States has condemned the conviction in Turkmenistan of an environmental activist, RTR and AFP reported on 6 March. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on 5 March that Washington believes the charges against Farid Tukhbatullin were "politically motivated." Boucher said the conviction is the "latest affront" to the human-rights situation in Turkmenistan.

Tukhbatullin was convicted on 4 March and sentenced to three years in prison for concealing a criminal act. Prosecutors accused him of receiving advance word of an alleged assassination attempt against President Niyazov from exiled opposition members while attending a human-rights conference in Moscow. He was also convicted of illegal border crossing.

The sentence was condemned by international human-rights groups, which said that it shows a continuing crackdown on Niyazov's opponents. The conviction came one day after Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who currently chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, had met Niyazov in Ashgabat for talks about human-rights concerns. Scheffer said that during the meeting Niyazov told him that Tukhbatullin would be released soon. (RTR, AFP)

...As Do Human Rights Groups
5 March 2003

International human rights groups on 5 March condemned the conviction of Turkmen environmental activist Farid Tukhbatullin. This conviction is the latest prosecution in what critics say is a political crackdown on opponents of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, AP reported the same day.

A statement from the groups said Tukhbatullin is an "innocent man" and that judicial proceedings against him do not meet "international standards for a fair trial." The statement was 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.

Critics say Turkmen authorities responded to the alleged 25 November assassination attempt with large-scale human-rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and show trials. (AP)

OSCE Report Blasts Rights Abuses In Turkmenistan
3 March 2003

A report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says that torture, mass arrests, and reprisals against suspects' families have been widespread in Turkmenistan since an alleged attack last year on President Niyazov, RTR and AFP reported on 3 March. The draft report for the 55-nation OSCE said Turkmen authorities responded to an attack on Niyazov on 25 November last year by detaining and torturing relatives of suspects, televising forced confessions, and staging show trials.

The report for the pan-European security body says that the alleged attack was used as a pretext for "large-scale violations of all the principles of due process of law," such as arbitrary detentions and the aforementioned show trials. The report cites torture and the forced use of drugs as means to obtain confessions.

Copies of the draft report have been made available to Western new agencies as the chairman of the OSCE, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, met Niyazov on 3 March in Ashgabat to talk about mounting human-rights concerns. (RTR, AFP)

Turkmenistan Backs U.S. Stance On Iraq
3 March 2003

OSCE Chairman-in-Office Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Ashgabat on 3 March that the Turkmen leadership supports Washington's position on Iraq, Interfax reported the same day. Scheffer, who is also the Dutch foreign minister, made his comments following a meeting with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

"Turkmenistan is following the line chosen by the U.S.," said Scheffer, who was on a brief visit in Ashgabat, where he also met with foreign ambassadors accredited in Turkmenistan. (Interfax)

Turkmen President Niyazov To Visit Iran Next Week
7 March 2003

By Antoine Blua

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is due next week to travel to Iran. He and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami are expected to consider an increase in Turkmen natural gas exports to northern Iran and compare positions on the Caspian Sea status, among other issues.

Artem Malgin is the deputy director of the Center for post-Soviet studies at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. He told RFE/RL that Turkmenistan is seeking to expand its foreign contacts at a time when Western states and the Commonwealth of Independent States have effectively frozen relations. "I think it's a significant visit. And to some extent it marks the foreign activity of Turkmenistan that started a year or two ago. [Last December the Turkmen government] signed an agreement with Pakistan and Afghanistan on a trans-Afghan [gas] pipeline. I can guess that this visit to Iran will aim at the same field on cooperation, I mean energy cooperation with Iran," he said.

Malgin pointed out that the issue of the delimitation of the Caspian Sea -- a longstanding point of contention between the five shoreline states of Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Iran -- is likely to be discussed during the visit. "[Turkmenistan] needs to coordinate with Iran its position on the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan, Russia, and Kazakhstan have already agreed and signed bilateral agreements [among] themselves about the Caspian status. Turkmenistan and Iran need somehow to coordinate their positions in order to achieve a kind of multilateral agreement," Malgin said.

Hooman Peimani, a Geneva-based independent consultant, characterizes the visit as a confirmation of the "continued friendship" between the two countries and the economic importance of Iran for Turkmenistan. "Despite the problems that Turkmenistan has had with other countries in the region, such as Azerbaijan, Iran has remained a friend of Turkmenistan. It provides land access to landlocked Turkmenistan, through which the Turkmen have exported cotton. And since 1997, they have also been exporting gas to the northern part of Iran," Peimani said.

Since 1997, the 200-kilometer Korpej-Kurt-Kui gas pipeline and the Tejen-Serakhs-Meshkhed railway have boosted bilateral trade turnover. According to Turkmen statistics, trade turnover has increased almost sixfold in the past five years to about $440 million in 2002. The balance of trade was $280 million in favor of Turkmenistan. The main Turkmen export is natural gas via the pipeline. The "Turkmenistan" daily newspaper reports that exports of gas to Iran rose by 13.1 percent in 2002 to about 5 billion cubic meters. This is still well below the pipeline's capacity. This year, exports are expected to rise to 7 billion cubic meters.

Peimani said bilateral trade has the potential to double in coming years. "If the current ties continue -- and especially if the hope of the Turkmen leader to increase sales of natural gas to Iran, which is going to be another issue to be discussed in Tehran, is realized -- Turkmenistan is going to expand the value of its economic relations with Iran. And I think the two countries are hoping that over the next few years they can expand it to about $1 billion," Peimani said.

Tehran is also trying to ensure it gets a share of the region's oil wealth. Analysts say they expect Niyazov to talk with Iranian officials on the possibility of building an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to Iran via Turkmenistan.

Iranian companies have already invested some in Turkmenistan's infrastructure, including the construction of liquefied gas terminals in the port of Turkmenbashi as well as the Serkhetabad and Serakhs railway stations. Davood Hermidas Bavand, a Tehran University professor, said Iran's vision for Turkmenistan goes beyond economic interests. He said the country views Turkmenistan as a cultural bridge to Central Asia. "For Iran, Turkmenistan is of crucial importance. This is why I hope this trip will be fruitful. This visit is likely to be a key element in the development of political and economic relations, and above all in the field of culture. Turkmenistan belongs to the basin of Iranian culture. From Turkmenistan we can enter more easily into the whole Central Asian region," Bavand said. The visit is expected to last one day.

Rights Groups Protest Sentencing Of Turkmen Activist
5 March 2003

By Bruce Pannier

A coalition of human rights groups is protesting a three-year jail sentence handed out on 4 March to Turkmen environmental activist Farid Tukhbatullin. A district court in Turkmenistan found Tukhbatullin, 41, guilty of illegally crossing the border and failing to report what the court said was a serious crime.

Tukhbatullin argued, in his defense, that he did not cross the border illegally but that Turkmen border guards forgot to stamp his passport. The second charge relates to a meeting Tukhbatullin attended in Moscow last year that was also attended by members of the country's political opposition. The coalition includes Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, the International League for Human Rights, and the Memorial Human Rights Center. The group is demanding that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov release Tukhbatullin. Tukhbatullin is the co-chairman of the Ecological Club in his hometown of Dashoguz, in northern Turkmenistan.

A coalition press release on 5 March said Tukhbatullin was jailed for allegedly refusing to disclose information about plans by exiled opposition groups to carry out a coup against Niyazov. There was a reported attempt on Niyazov's life last November and the Turkmen government alleged that some of the people who attended the Moscow conference were involved with the coup. Delegates who attended the conference said discussions did not include the violent overthrow of the government.

Judith Arenas of the London-based rights organization Amnesty International said her group considers Tukhbatullin to be an innocent man and now, a prisoner of conscience. "We believe Mr. Tukhbatullin is an innocent man. We are indeed considering him a prisoner of conscience and will be campaigning actively for his immediate release because we believe that he was wrongly convicted by judicial processes that leave a lot to be desired in terms of fair trials. We are very concerned that, in fact, Mr. Tukhbatullin appears to have been imprisoned and tried solely for expressing his beliefs in a nonviolent way," Arenas said.

Vitalii Ponomarev of Memorial said the Turkmen government was using the Tukhbatullin case to send a message to other activists in the country: "I think they are trying by these means to frighten activists so these people will meet less with foreigners to discuss what is happening in Turkmenistan."

Arenas said the issue was raised at a meeting this week between the OSCE head of mission, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and Niyazov. She said she hopes Scheffer will continue to press the issue. "We are hoping that the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Mr. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, will actually raise the case directly with President Niyazov, especially since President Niyazov had given his assurances to the OSCE that Mr. Tukhbatullin would be released soon. We actually hope that he will follow upon his promises," she said.

Ponomarev said he doubts that Tukhbatullin would be freed soon because he says Niyazov does not want to free the man. "I don't think it is so much 'will [Niyazov] be able to [free Tukhbatullin]?' as it is 'he does not want to.' There is still some hope the verdict will be reviewed and overturned in an appellate court, but it is understood that the reason for this [verdict] is that Niyazov wants to keep people in fear and the court system is used as a tool for this," he said.

It is not known when Tukhbatullin's appeal will be heard, but observers say there is little precedent in the Turkmen court system for a convicted person's case to be overturned by an appellate court. (RFE/RL)

OSCE, Turkmen Leadership Confer On Human Rights In Ashgabat
4 March 2003

By Farangiz Najibullah

The OSCE's chairman-in-office, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, paid a visit this week to Turkmenistan to discuss human rights. His trip coincided with a decree by Turkmen 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's life late last year. Rights groups say that as many as 100 people have been detained in connection with the assassination attempt and that there are reports of torture and reprisals against suspects' families.

Last November, the president escaped unharmed after gunmen opened fire on his motorcade in central Ashgabat.

Stella Ronner, an OSCE spokeswoman, told RFE/RL that the chairman-in-office raised the issue of the crackdown with Niyazov during their meeting on 3 March in Ashgabat. "The chairman-in-office, in his meeting with the president, has assured the president that terrorism and terrorist attacks should be condemned and that the OSCE does understand that trials should take place, but in accordance with transparency and in accordance with the law and, of course, taking into consideration the importance of due process," Ronner said.

It is not clear whether the OSCE chair's words will have any effect. In the past, Niyazov has tended to ignore criticism of human-rights conditions.

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 and the United Nations' human rights groups. The country tends to ignore them. I would be very surprised if anything could be said that might alter the behavior of the Niyazov regime," he said.

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

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

Bess Brown worked in Turkmenistan as a political officer for the OCSE from 1999 until 2002. She said Turkmen leaders tend to dismiss those kinds of criticisms as coming from "foreigners who do not understand Turkmen culture and mentality." However, she insists that the organization should continue a dialogue with Turkmenistan. She said the OCSE 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," she told RFE/RL.

Jakub Swiecicki, an expert at the Swedish Institute of International Relations, said organizations like the OSCE should show the Turkmen people that 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, or representatives of opposition groups, 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 chairman-in-office is convinced that the organization will continue to play an important role in Turkmenistan. (RFE/RL)