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Turkmen Leader Plans Rare Visit To Berlin, With Call For Merkel To Target Ashgabat's Rights Record

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov plans a rare visit to Berlin on August 29, where the head of one of the world's most closed countries is expected to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

As both sides look likely to discuss ways to increase trade, it remains unclear whether Merkel will also use the opportunity to press Berdymukhammedov to improve Turkmenistan's poor human rights record despite demands for a tougher stance toward the gas-rich Central Asian republic.

Merkel and Berdymukhammedov last met in Berlin in 2008 during the Turkmen leader's swing through Germany and Austria. More recently, they talked in Astana, Kazakhstan, during a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010.

Announcing Berdymukhammedov's visit on August 26, the German Foreign Ministry gave no details of the agenda. But a German official speaking on condition of anonymity to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service said the meeting was at Merkel's invitation and they would discuss economic and political cooperation.

Germany is Turkmenistan's principal foreign trading partner in the European Union, with bilateral trade worth $466 million in 2014, the most recent figure available. That is up from $448 million in 2013.

Much of the trade focuses on Germany exporting machinery and other industrial products to Turkmenistan -- Berlin's third-largest trade partner in the region after Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

At the same time, German companies have played a role in developing Turkmenistan's energy sector, including exploring for new natural-gas fields on the Caspian Sea shelf. They are reported to want access to Turkmenistan's onshore fields as well.

However, German business activity is complicated in Turkmenistan by reported difficulties in getting permits and nontransparent administrative procedures. Germany's DEA Deutsche Erdoel last year gave up its concession on the Caspian Sea shelf due to reported frustration over bureaucracy and corruption.

The German government official told RFE/RL confidentially that "human rights in Turkmenistan is always a priority but until the meeting takes place [on August 29], I cannot say in what form they will be discussed."

Secret Prisons

International rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Berlin to challenge the Turkmen leader to end its secretive imprisonment of political opponents, free a prominent jailed journalist, and eliminate arbitrary bans on people leaving the country.

"This is one of those rare opportunities for a world leader to stand up for those in Turkmenistan who cannot engage their own government," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW in Berlin. "Chancellor Merkel should not miss this opportunity to speak directly and forcefully about the need to end repression in Turkmenistan."

The rights group says dozens of people, mostly arrested in the late 1990s and early 2000s, have simply disappeared into the Turkmen prison system, with no information of their whereabouts given to relatives. In addition to those secretively imprisoned, Ashgabat has used fabricated drug charges and other allegations to publicly jail many other dissidents, including RFE/RL Turkmen Service contributor Saparmamed Nepeskuliev in 2015.

Thirteen media and human rights organizations sent a joint letter to the Berdymukhammedov in July this year calling for the release of Nepeskuliev, who has been kept incommunicado since his detention.

The Turkmen government also blacklists many individuals, including students hoping to study abroad and activists, from leaving the country -- a practice rights groups call political intimidation.

"During the communist era, many people in East Germany were similarly banned from leaving the country, as in Turkmenistan [today], so this practice should resonate with Chancellor Merkel, who is from the east [of Germany]," Williamson said. "People inside and outside Turkmenistan are counting on her to tell Berdymukhammedov that this practice should end."

Berdymukhammedov removed some of the most egregious aspects of the cult of personality cultivated by his predecessor, the late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, after the latter's death in late 2006. But he has never dismantled the autocratic system he inherited and has arguably expanded presidential powers in the past decade and continues to ruthlessly stamp out any public expressions of dissent.

With contributions from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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