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Activists Tell OSCE Turkmenistan Backtracking On Pledges About Disappeared Prisoners

Instead of being released after having served his full 11-year prison sentence, Gulgeldy Ananiyazov was transferred in March from prison to a remote place of internal exile.
Instead of being released after having served his full 11-year prison sentence, Gulgeldy Ananiyazov was transferred in March from prison to a remote place of internal exile.

An international rights campaign has told the OSCE's human rights conference in Warsaw that Turkmenistan is backtracking on its promises to curtail the practice of enforced disappearances in its prison system.

As a result, the Prove They Are Alive! campaign is calling on the international community to apply "strong, consistent" pressure on Turkmenistan to end what it says is a "systemic" state practice.

"The crime of enforced disappearances continues unabated in the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan," the campaign said ahead of a presentation at the OSCE's Warsaw conference of its updated 2019 list of victims.

"Last year, international pressure mounted -- including in the OSCE, the United Nations, and the European Union -- and finally brought limited initial progress," it said in the presentation on September 16. "However, since September 2018, this trend reversed when quiet diplomatic dialogue replaced public pressure and the Turkmen government reentrenched its position."

The campaigners say that during the past year Turkmenistan has ended its dialogue with the UN's Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.

It also has stopped replying to new inquiries and has not included UN recommendations about enforced disappearances in its draft plan on the issue, the researchers say.

Turkmenistan "has avoided taking any significant steps to end this gross violation of human rights, instead simulating an ineffective 'dialogue' with international organizations on this issue," the campaign says.

"It is time for this charade to stop and for the government of Turkmenistan to unconditionally prove" that its disappeared prisoners are still alive, it says.

"The number of documented cases of enforced disappearance in prison in this updated list is 121," the campaign's September 2019 list concludes.

But it says the list is "inevitably incomplete" because of the "severe suppression of civil liberties and denial of access to the country for foreign human rights organizations and international observers."

"According to our estimates, the total number of victims of enforced and involuntary disappearances in Turkmenistan is in the order of hundreds, and some prisoners have been held incommunicado since 2002."

Rights groups say that in many cases, prisoners who have disappeared in the custody of Turkmen authorities have been convicted on politically motivated charges and have been perceived as a potential threat to the authorities in Ashgabat.

Prove They Are Alive! notes that the prison terms of 14 individuals on its updated list of the missing have already been served or are due to expire in 2019-20.

"The fate of the 14 individuals is unknown, except that of civic activist Gulgeldy Ananiyazov, who, instead of being released after having served his full 11-year prison sentence, was transferred in March 2019 from prison to a remote place of internal exile where he is living in terrible conditions," it says.

"Special attention to this group of the disappeared could mean the difference between life and death, as there is a high risk that they will receive new prison terms on trumped-up charges," it says.

The campaign's updated list groups Turkmenistan's disappeared prisoners into four categories.

The first is so-called "Novemberists," who received long prison sentences for their alleged roles in a purported November 2002 coup against then-President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Alleged radical Islamists form another large group of prisoners who have disappeared in the country's penal system since Niyazov died in late 2006 and was succeeded by the current president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

Those include people arrested in a widespread crackdown after civil unrest in Ashgabat in 2008, as well as alleged supporter of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

More recently added to the disappeared list are students, professors, and employees of schools linked to Fetullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Islamic preacher from Turkey who is accused by Ankara of having orchestrated a failed coup in Turkey in July 2016.

Another large group of prisoners who've vanished in the jails of Turkmenistan are those convicted of so-called economic crimes or abusing their powers in a state office.

Yury Dzhibladze, a Russian-based coordinator for the Prove They Are Alive! campaign, told RFE/RL that most of those individuals were targeted by crackdowns that focused on rich elites perceived as a political threat to Berdymukhammedov.

Civic activists also are disappearing in Turkmenistan's prisons after being arrested on what appear to be politically motivated charges, Dzhibladze said.

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