The weeks-long disappearance from public view of imperious Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov this summer spawned rumors of his death and calls for Ashgabat to prove he was still alive.
But following his August 12 reappearance to host a regional conference, rights groups are calling for Berdymukhammedov to prove that other “disappeared” people in Turkmenistan are still alive -- scores of prisoners jailed during the past two decades who have not been seen nor heard from since arrested or going on trial.
The international human rights campaign Prove They Are Alive! is leading the call for some answers.
The campaign’s human rights researchers began in 2013 to track and document “widespread and systemic” disappearances in Turkmenistan’s prison system that had begun in the early 2000s.
At first, the campaign documented dozens of cases. Researchers shorten the list when they confirm that a disappeared prisoner was allowed a visitor or when the body of a dead prisoner is returned to relatives.
But the list has continued to grow, reaching 121 documented cases by September 2018 when the last update was published.
“It is clear from the available data that the government of Turkmenistan continues to commit the crime of disappearing people in its prisons” under the rule of Berdymukhammedov, the report concluded.
“Disappeared prisoners are dying in custody and they are being replaced by new disappeared who bear unspeakable suffering and torture,” it said. “Their families also suffer torture at not knowing the fates of their loved ones.”
Yuri Dzhibladze, a coordinator of the campaign who also heads the Moscow-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, says the list is “inevitably incomplete.”
“The very rough assessment is that we can easily talk about several hundred people who have disappeared inside Turkmenistan’s prisons,” Dzhibladze told RFE/RL. “The real...number is very difficult to document because Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries in the world.”
“There are no international nongovernmental organizations or international observers from the United Nations or the OSCE being allowed to monitor and document the situation,” he said.
“The government of Turkmenistan provides false information to the United Nations, to the OSCE, to governments of other countries, and also to the European Union,” Dzhibladze says.
“They [talk] about someone being released from prison and sent into internal exile who allegedly have been visited by relatives,” he said. “But this information is false. We know this because we’ve contacted these relatives and they’ve told us they’ve still never been allowed a visit.”
That means the campaign must search diligently for verifiable sources of information -- including relatives of the disappeared and former prisoners who can talk about individuals they’ve seen inside Turkmenistan’s secretive jails.
Those sources are mostly relatives or former prisoners who’ve been able to flee the country.
“Those who are still inside Turkmenistan are at a high risk of repression and are very afraid to speak,” Dzhibladze said.
Turkmenistan -- where every facet of society is tightly controlled by the president -- is at the bottom of international ratings that measure freedom and democracy.
In Freedom House's index on basic freedoms, Turkmenistan is rated worse than North Korea and only ahead of Syria.
‘No Person, No Problem’
One relative of a disappeared prisoner who is willing to talk publicly about the issue is Bayram Shikhmuradov.
His father, Boris Shikhmuradov, was Turkmenistan’s foreign minister during the rule of former President Saparmurat Niyazov.
But in November 2002, the ex-foreign minister was accused of leading an attempted coup and trying to assassinate Niyazov.
Scores of other prominent Turkmen, known now as “Novemberists,” also received long prison sentences for their alleged roles in the purported coup attempt and have disappeared in jail.
Boris Shikhmuradov has not been heard from since December 2002 when he was allowed one visit by a lawyer before his trial and conviction.
He was sentenced to life in prison, a punishment that did not exist in Turkmenistan’s legal code at the time.
Even after the death of Niyazov in 2006 and Berdymukhammedov’s accession to power, Shikhmuradov and the other Novemberists have remained missing.
“On May 25, 2019, my father turned 70 years old. I don’t know where he is now or what is happening to him,” said Bayram, who has remained outside of Turkmenistan since a year before his father’s arrest.
“Authorities not only refuse to disclose information about political prisoners, but simply deny the fact of their existence,” Bayram told RFE/RL.
“Several former prisoners were able to get outside Turkmenistan and describe the general situation in Turkmen prisons, or at least those in which they were serving their sentences,” Bayram said. “These stories suggest [the] sad thoughts that those sentenced to long terms of imprisonment have very little chance of surviving and maintaining their health.”
To describe the actions of Turkmen authorities under Berdymukhammedov, Bayram quotes an expression often wrongly attributed to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin: “No person, no problem.”
Prove They Are Alive! lists 60 Novemberists who’ve not been heard from since their trials in late 2002 or early 2003, along with two others jailed for trying to help alleged coup plotters escape from the country.
The campaign has confirmed that only one person connected with the alleged coup plotters has been released from prison -- a woman convicted of aiding a Novemberist’s escape attempt who completed her sentence and was freed in May 2019.
Prove They are Alive also has confirmed that nine other alleged coup plotters have died in custody since 2002.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, notes that the prison sentences for many other disappeared Novemberists should have ended by now.
But those prisoners’ sentences have either been extended or authorities have ignored their release dates without commenting on their fate.
Konstantin Shikhmuradov, the brother of the former foreign minister, will complete his 17-year sentence in January 2020.
Prove They Are Alive! is calling on foreign governments to put pressure on Berdymukhammedov to ensure Shikhmuradov's timely release -- if he is still alive.
But Bayram Shikmuradov says he has little hope.
“Berdymukhammedov doesn’t give a damn about people’s awareness and international attention,” he told RFE/RL. “He sees and hears only what he wants. He is absolutely convinced that he is ‘The Special One’ and immediately becomes hysterical if someone questions this.”
“The army, the police, the prosecutors, and the courts all exist only to protect the personal security of the presidential entourage,” Bayram said. “The whole country, one way or another, serves the interests of the ruling elite. Whoever voluntarily or involuntarily offends these interests is very likely to become a victim of enforced disappearance.”
Bayram concludes that there are only two options for Turkmen citizens who criticize Berdymukhammedov’s rule: “to disappear in prison or, if one is lucky enough, to pack and disappear from Turkmenistan.”
Lured And Lost
One alarming case of a recently disappeared Turkmen is that of civic activist Omruzak Omarkuliev, a university student in Turkey who had organized an association for other Turkmen students.
Omarkuliev told RFE/RL in January 2018 that the Turkmen Embassy in Turkey had expressed interest in supporting his association.
In February 2018, Omarkuliev was invited by Turkmenistan’s Central Election Commission to return to his homeland and attend an event ahead of the country’s March 2018 parliamentary elections.
He told RFE/RL he was excited and optimistic about having a chance to help develop democracy in his homeland.
But when he tried to return to his wife and university in Turkey on February 22, 2018, Turkmen border officials refused to let him board his flight. They did not give a reason for their action.
Over the next two weeks, Omarkuliev spoke about his plight to RFE/RL and wrote about his dilemma on independent Turkmen websites run from abroad -- including websites that are highly critical of Berdymukhammedov.
Omarkuliev was last heard from on March 9, 2018, shortly before he was arrested. Tried behind closed doors, he was sentenced in May 2018 to 20 years “deprivation of liberty.”
His father suffered a heart attack when he learned about the sentence and died in a hospital three days later.
Omarkuliev was thought to have initially been incarcerated at Turkmenistan’s notorious Ovadan-Depe prison.
But his current situation is unknown because neither his relatives nor foreign observers have been allowed to visit him.
Turkmen authorities will not release information about his health or location.
Meanwhile, his relatives also reportedly have been subjected to pressure from Turkmen security services since the publication of stories about his plight by foreign media.
Turkmen who have been charged with being radical Islamists form another large group of prisoners who have disappeared within the country’s penal system under Berdymukhammedov’s rule.
The 2018 report from Prove They Are Alive! lists 30 people convicted as radical Islamists and sentenced to between eight and 25 years in prison.
The campaign says the practice appears to have begun under Berdymukhammedov following “armed incidents in Ashgabat” in September 2008.
These incidents triggered a series of large-scale arrests and fabricated criminal cases against the so-called "Wahhabis," it says.
A new wave of arrests started in 2013 and increased after Russian TV broadcast footage of Turkmen arrested in Syria in June 2013 as Islamic State extremists.
After an attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016, Turkmen authorities also started arresting followers of Fetullah Gulen -- the U.S.-based Islamic preacher alleged by Ankara to have orchestrated the failed plot, a charge that Gulen vociferously denies as politically motivated.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has confirmed that several waves of arrests of so-called Gulenists began in Turkmenistan in October 2016 and continued through 2017.
Dzhibladze says the latest research by Prove They Are Alive! documents about 40 followers of Gulen who have disappeared within Turkmenistan’s prison system.
He says many were either professors, students, or employees of Gulen-funded schools that were set up in Turkmenistan but closed at the request of Ankara after the failed coup in Turkey.
Rivals Accused Of Economic Crimes
Another large group of prisoners who’ve vanished within the jails of Turkmenistan are individuals convicted of so-called economic crimes or of abusing their powers in a state office.
Dzhibladze says these individuals were targeted by crackdowns that focused on rich elites whose assets have been seized by the state.
“We’re talking about people in a position of power that either Niyazov or Berdymukhammedov have seen as a threat and posing a challenge to them,” Dzhibladze said.
Those cases include former security officers, the heads of state-owned businesses, and even officials from the Prosecutor-General’s Office who were involved in the convictions of Novemberists in 2002 and 2003.