- Governance: Republic, unitary state
- Capital: Ashgabat
- Population: 5.2 million
- Religion: Islam (sunni)
- Language: Turkmen
- Location: Central Asia
- Democracy index: Not free, 4/100
With grand Palaces, and gilded statues, Ashgabat is a capital unlike anything else. At the same time, gas rich Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most repressive regimes, completely closed to human rights organizations and independent journalists. While Turkmen authorities claim in the UN that all freedoms are guaranteed by the country’s Constitution, reality is quite different. It is almost a guarantee that most basic human rights are being violated systematically in Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries, not only in the Central Asian context, but to the world at large. Authorities exercise complete control over the media and civil society, and there is no political freedom. Critical voices “disappear” into the Turkmen prison system, where torture is widespread and where many do not survive. Even family members of dissidents turn up on lists of persons who are forbidden to leave the country.
Disappearances, after a wave of arrests in 2002, were only the beginning of what today is an encompassing system designed to keep criticism of the President and his circle away from the public space in Turkmenistan. There are no free elections, no independent newspapers or news agencies and no genuinely independent human rights organizations working openly. Not only critics, but also family members of critics, are included on lists of persons who are forbidden to leave the country.
The President enjoys complete control of government coffers, which are not subject to public scrutiny and which, in spite of widespread poverty and health issues among ordinary Turkmens, are spent on prestigious projects only intended to strengthen the President’s position. Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most corrupt regimes. Politically motivated charges and torture and systematically used to control the population. Among the many Turkmens to have disappeared into the country’s prison system is Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, an activist with asylum status in Norway, and who previously lived in Trondheim with his family.
Turkmenistan is the only country in Central Asia where the Norwegian Helsinki Committee has never had an official visit. The country is open to business people and diplomats, as well as private individuals traveling as tourists, but not to foreign human rights organizations and independent journalists. This does not mean that we don’t work on Turkmenistan, on the contrary it is an important area of focus for us in Central Asia. One of the ways in which we try to put pressure on Turkmen authorities is through the UN system.
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee is part of a campaign involving leading human rights organizations called, Prove They Are Alive!, where we document so-called “enforced disappearances”. In the Turkmen context, this means imprisonment of critical voices, where family and friends are not provided with information about where the person in question is being held, and are not permitted to visit him or her. In several instances, the family has assumed that the prisoner has died, only to be returned a dead body several years later. In the few instances where this has happened, the deceased has shown clear signs of starvation and mistreatment in prison. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee regularly requests meetings with UN delegations and relevant UN bodies to inform them about new cases that we have documented together with our international colleagues.
Turkmenistan became independent when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. Saparmurad Niyazov, who had already led the Turkmen Soviet Republic since 1985, became the country’s first President. The cult of personality surrounding Niyazov grew increasingly all-encompassing, he is perhaps best known under the name “Turkmenbashi”, or the father of all Turkmens. The circumstances surrounding what Niyazov saw as a conspiracy and assassination attempt on him in November 2002 are murky and led to a large wave of arrests, including members of government. The fate of dozens of people is still unknown – while a few have been confirmed as deceased while in prison.
In the period after 2002, Niyazov grew increasingly eccentric and Turkmenistan increasingly isolated. In schools and in society at large, the President’s book “Rukhnama” became compulsory reading material and Niyazov himself was promoted to the status of demigod. When the President died in December 2006, it was unclear to the world in general, and to Turkmens themselves, who would become the next leader of the country. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, former Minister of Health and Vice President, became the country’s new President. During a visit to the United States early in his presidency, Berdymukhamedov claimed that Turkmenistan would now open up to the outside world. That did not happen. The cult of personality surrounding “Turkmenbashi” ended but was replaced by the same kind of worship of Berdymukhamedov himself. On the contrary, the human rights situation has further deteriorated under his leadership. Today, Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
- 1991: Independence, President Saparmurat Niyazov («Turkmenbashi»)
- 2002: Alleged assasination attempt on Niyazov, wave of arrests
- 2016: Niyazov dies
- 2007: Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov President