a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
Opposition media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) made no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year, nor were there reports of killings by narcotics traffickers or similar criminal groups.
There was a report of the hazing of military conscripts that resulted in three deaths. The law requires that the government protect the health and lives of members of the armed forces.
Opposition media and NGOs did not report politically motivated disappearances during the year. Nonetheless an NGO-led advocacy campaign, Prove They Are Alive!, maintained a list of reported disappeared prisoners. The 2019 list included the names of 121 prisoners, the same number as the previous year, including two releases and two new names from 2018, although the NGO estimated the actual number to be in the hundreds. The list included former ministers of foreign affairs Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdyev, former director of the Turkmenbashy oil refinery Guychmyrad Esenov, and many others accused of participation in an alleged 2002 assassination attempt on previous president Saparmurat Niyazov.
On August 10, Memorial Human Rights Center based in Russia provided an update on Kakajan Halbayev and Kemal Saparov, Turkmen students who were imprisoned in 2018 after they returned from St. Petersburg, Russia. Halbayev and Saparov received 15 years of imprisonment and were accused of conspiracy violently to overthrow the constitutional order, incitement to religious hatred committed by an organized group, and organization and participation in a criminal community. Memorial reported that, according to the investigation, all the “criminal acts” were committed by them on the territory of St. Petersburg. According to the Memorial report, the government of Turkmenistan alleged 12 citizens of Turkmenistan, who were in St. Petersburg in 2015-16, became members of the religious communities Wahhabi, Salafi, Muslim Brotherhood, and Hizb ut-Tahrir; met in cafes and mosques to discuss religious issues; and with citizens of Russia unidentified by the investigation created an organized criminal group, called for the seizure of power in Turkmenistan, used the internet for their activities, and through the media regularly called for the creation of an Islamic state in Turkmenistan. In 2018 the Ashgabat City Court sentenced Halbayev and Saparov to 15 years in prison in a strict-regime penal colony. They were in Bayramaly colony at the end of the year.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit mistreatment, in its January 2017 report (the latest available) the UN Committee against Torture noted its concern at “consistent allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment, including severe beatings, of persons deprived of their liberty, especially at the moment of apprehension and during pretrial detention, mainly in order to extract confessions.” Activists and former prisoners related mistreatment, such as beating kidneys with plastic bottles full of water so bruises do not show on the body and a practice known as sklonka, in which prisoners are forced to stay in the open sun or cold for hours at a time.
In its 2019 review of the country, Amnesty International stated, “Torture and other ill-treatment is reported to be widespread.” Human Rights Watch in its 2019 report stated, “Torture and ill-treatment remain integral to Turkmenistan’s prison system.”
Officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government were known to act with impunity, although numerous officials were arrested and imprisoned on charges of corruption. There were no reported prosecutions of government officials for human rights abuses.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions reportedly remained unsanitary, overcrowded, and in some cases life threatening due to harsh treatment and inadequate medical care.
Physical Conditions: The prisoners in pretrial detention facilities were predominantly those sentenced but not yet transferred to penal colonies. The six pretrial detention facilities were designed for 1,120 persons but were believed to hold many times that number.
According to RFE/RL, a mosque for 600 individuals was built at MR-E/16 facility. According to the ombudsperson’s report, inspected facilities “… in general comply with the requirements of the law; however, some circumstances have been identified that require improvement of activities and ensuring consistent monitoring.” The ombudsperson sent three recommendations to the Ministry of Internal Affairs: to comply with labor and health safety rules, safety regulations, and industrial sanitation standards; to provide sports grounds with the necessary equipment to perform physical exercise; and to equip special rooms for cultural leisure activities.
On January 27, Turkmen.news published a monologue of a former convict who served at the maximum-security colony LB-K/11 in Lebap Province regarding the deteriorating conditions in the prison system. In June 2019 a commission from the Ministry of Internal Affairs inspected Mary prison hospital MR-B/15, which revealed numerous violations. As a result, the head of the hospital, deputy head, chief doctor, and several staff were demoted and transferred to other places. The inspection also revealed such violations as fake diagnoses and unexplained healthy prisoners living in the medical unit. The former prisoner also reported worsening food conditions.
Prisons were reportedly short on food and medication because the government reduced state support around the country. In February and March 2019, prisoners were cut off from quality bread, meat, rice, and pasta.
On August 4, Chronicles of Turkmenistan (CT) reported a female penal colony in Dashoguz prohibited movement between prison blocks and created an isolation zone for sick inmates. Doctors and nurses from the city infectious disease hospital were sent to work in the colony’s quarantine zone. Inmates were reportedly told to sew their own masks. Some inmates were apparently able to receive medication from relatives, due to a medicine shortage in the colony. CT also reported that two prisoners in Lebap’s LBK/12 penitentiary died of pneumonia in late July. Relatives were not permitted to take the bodies; Ministry of Interior soldiers reportedly buried the bodies in a Lebap cemetery. The General Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice apparently agreed to suspend the transfer of convicts to prisons in other provinces.
On August 24, Turkmen.news reported that detainee Bayramdurdy Saparov in LB-K/11 prison colony in Lebap Province died of COVID-19-related pneumonia. Despite suffering chest pains and a lack of oxygen, he could not be transported to the prison hospital MR-B/15 for proper treatment, since all penitentiary institutions were in quarantine due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that began in March.
Administration: Authorities claimed they investigated mistreatment; however, the government did not provide written reports of its investigations to the diplomatic community. The government did not confirm whether it established a prison ombudsman.
According to relatives, prison authorities sometimes denied family members access to prisoners; denied family members permission to give food, medical, and other supplies to some prisoners; and did not make religious facilities available to all prisoners.
Turkmen.news reported in May that authorities prohibited relatives from visiting prisoners starting on March 5, due to COVID-19 concerns.
Independent Monitoring: There was no independent monitoring of the prisons.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but both remained serious problems. Persons arrested or detained are not entitled to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention while detained.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
A warrant is not required for arrest when officials catch a suspect in the act of committing an offense. The prosecutor general must issue an authorization for arrest within 72 hours of detention. If investigating authorities do not find evidence of guilt and issue a formal indictment within 10 days of detention, they must release the detainee; however, authorities did not always comply with this requirement. If evidence is found, an investigation may last as long as two months. A provincial or national-level prosecutor may extend the investigation to six months. The national prosecutor general or deputy prosecutor general may extend the investigation period to a maximum of one year. Following the investigation, the prosecutor prepares a bill of indictment and transfers the case to the court. Courts generally follow these procedures, and the prosecutor promptly informs detainees of the charges against them.
The criminal procedure code provides for a bail system and surety, but authorities did not implement these provisions. The law entitles detainees to immediate access to an attorney of their choice after a formal accusation, although detainees for various reasons may not have prompt or regular access to legal counsel. For example, detainees may have been unaware of the law, security forces may have ignored the entitlement to counsel, or the practice of seeking formal counsel was not a cultural norm. Authorities denied some detainees family visitation during the year. Families sometimes did not know the whereabouts of detained relatives. Incommunicado detention was a problem. The extent to which authorities failed to protect due process in the criminal justice system was unclear.
Arbitrary Arrest: The law characterizes any opposition to the government as treason. Persons convicted of treason faced life imprisonment and were ineligible for pardoning. In the past the government arrested and filed charges on economic or criminal grounds against those expressing critical or differing views instead of charging its critics with treason.
There were reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions. Authorities frequently singled out human rights activists, journalists, members of religious groups, ethnic minorities, and dissidents, as well as members of NGOs who interacted with foreigners.
Pretrial Detention: In most cases the law permits detention of no more than two months, but in exceptional cases it may be extended to one year with approval of the prosecutor general. For minor crimes a much shorter investigation period applies. Authorities rarely exceeded legal limits for pretrial detention. Forced confessions also played a part in the reduction of time in pretrial detention. Accused persons are entitled to challenge the court but were unlikely to do so.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Persons arrested or detained are not entitled to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention while detained or obtain prompt release if unlawfully detained. Persons arrested or detained unlawfully may seek reimbursement for damages following release. Law enforcement authorities found guilty of unlawful detention or arrest may be punished by demotion or suspension for five years, correctional labor service for up to two years, or imprisonment for up to eight years.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the executive controls it, and it is subordinate to the executive. There was no legislative review of the president’s judicial appointments and dismissals. The president had sole authority to dismiss any judge. The judiciary was widely reputed to be corrupt and inefficient.
The law provides for due process for defendants, including a public trial; the right to attend the trial; access to accusatory material; the right to call witnesses; the right to a defense attorney, including a court-appointed lawyer if the defendant cannot afford one; and the right to represent oneself in court. Authorities, however, often denied these rights. Defendants frequently did not enjoy a presumption of innocence. The government permits the public to attend most trials, but it closed some, especially those considered politically sensitive. There were few independent lawyers available to represent defendants. The criminal procedure code provides that defendants be present at their trials and consult with their attorneys in a timely manner. The law sets no restrictions on a defendant’s access to an attorney. The court at times did not allow defendants to confront or question a witness against them and denied defendants and their attorneys access to government evidence. In some cases courts refused to accept exculpatory evidence provided by defense attorneys, even if that evidence might have changed the outcome of the trial. Courts did not offer interpreters to defendants who did not speak Turkmen.
Legal proceedings are conducted in the state language (Turkmen). Participants in the proceedings who do not speak the state language are guaranteed the right to make statements, give explanations and testimonies, file motions, bring complaints, become acquainted with all the materials of the case, speak in court in their native language or another language that they speak, and use the services of an interpreter. The legal code requires the government to hand over investigative and judicial documents to the defendant and translated into their native language or into another language they speak.
Even when the courts observed due process, the authority of the government prosecutor far exceeded that of the defense attorney, making it difficult for the defendant to receive a fair trial. Court transcripts frequently were flawed or incomplete, especially when there was a need to translate defendants’ testimony from Russian to Turkmen. Defendants could appeal a lower court’s decision and petition the president for clemency.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Opposition groups and some international organizations stated the government held political prisoners and detainees.
The precise number of political prisoners remained unknown. Observers estimated a number between 100 and 200, including the NGO Prove They Are Alive’s list of 121 prisoners.
Those convicted of treason faced life imprisonment and were ineligible for pardoning, although they could receive reductions of sentence from the president. The government continued to assert that none of these persons was a political prisoner. Humanitarian and human rights organizations were not permitted to visit political prisoners.
In February 2018 authorities reportedly arrested Omruzak Omarkulyev, a Turkmen university student studying in Turkey. Omarkulyev had created an informal Turkmen students’ club at his university in Turkey. In March 2018 Omarkulyev went missing after migration authorities allegedly banned him from returning to Turkey for his studies. RFE/RL and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, an exile group, reported that Omarkulyev was sentenced to 20 years in prison on unknown charges and was being held at the maximum-security prison in Ovadandepe. In September, RFE/RL reported on a video in which Omarkulyev appeared although he did not speak in the video. The video claimed authorities had not arrested Omarkulyev and, instead, he was serving his mandatory two-year military service. The video was Omarkulyev’s first appearance since he disappeared in March 2018. Prove They Are Alive! included him in its 2019 report.
Amnesty: Although the president granted pardons to several hundred individuals with criminal convictions, the names of those pardoned were not made public. It was widely assumed that he did not pardon any political prisoners.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals located Outside the Country
On August 1, RFE/RL reported Dursoltan Taganova, an activist and representative of the Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan (DCT) living in Istanbul, was detained during a July 19 protest in front of the Turkmen consulate. One of the DCT leaders, Myrat Gurbanov, told RFE/RL that Taganova was transferred to a deportation camp in Istanbul because her immigration documents had expired. Gurbanov stated Turkish business representatives were pressuring Turkish authorities to send Taganova to Turkmenistan. According to media reports, Turkish officials released Taganova from the detention center on October 13 and granted her asylum in Turkey. On October 30, RFE/RL reported Turkmenistan government officials continued to harass Taganova and her family.
The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights reported the national security services had increased their efforts to recruit informants among the growing community of Turkmenistani citizens who resided in Turkey. On July 1, Turkmen News reported that officials of the Ministry of National Security were persecuting Turkmen activists abroad, as well as their relatives who were in Turkmenistan.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The civil judiciary system was neither independent nor impartial, as the president appointed all judges. According to the law, evidence gathered during a criminal investigation can serve as the basis for a civil action in a process called “civil lawsuit in criminal justice.” Observers noted that in principle, this could include human rights abuses. In the past there were reports of bribes in the civil court system to ensure a particular outcome. In cases in which it had interests regarding an individual citizen, the state used the judiciary to impose court orders. Persons and organizations may appeal adverse decisions to regional human rights bodies, but local courts were unlikely to reverse decisions despite successful appeals.
Any individual or organization may file a complaint related to human rights abuses with the Office of the Ombudsperson. According to the law, the ombudsperson may then make a recommendation to the offending party on the necessary measures to restore the violated rights or freedoms immediately.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, but authorities frequently did not respect these prohibitions. Authorities reportedly searched private homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization.
The law does not regulate surveillance by the state security apparatus, which regularly monitored the activities of officials, citizens, opponents, and critics of the government, and foreigners. Security officials used physical surveillance, telephone tapping, electronic eavesdropping, and informers. Authorities frequently queried the parents of students studying overseas and sometimes threatened state employees with loss of employment if they maintained friendships with foreigners.
The government reportedly intercepted surface mail before delivery, and letters and parcels taken to the post office had to remain unsealed for government inspection.
Persons harassed, detained, or arrested by authorities reported that the government caused family members to be fired from their jobs or expelled from school. Authorities sometimes also detained and interrogated family members.
The authorities blocked access to websites they considered sensitive, including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and social media, as well as to some virtual private network (VPN) connections. The government controlled the internet (there was only one provider in the country) and monitored users’ (journalists, civil society, etc.) internet activities.
According to CT, surveillance of activists and their relatives consisted of wiretapping, monitoring of postal correspondence, and periodic visits by district police officers. Local authorities conducted personal surveillance in special cases.