Honor of the Night of Omnipotence
Previously aired on RFE/RL's Turkmen service in 2005.
A former victim of the Turkmen judicial system says that it is the beginning of the hunting season for new prisoners.
As in previous years, marking an end to the holy month of Ramadan, the president of Turkmenistan again pardoned thousands of prisoners. This year, in honor of the Night of Omnipotence, the number of pardoned was 8,145. In 2004, the number of pardoned was about 9,000, and in 2003 some 7,000 prisoners were released before serving their full sentence. The Turkmen Prosecutor General's Office said 140,000 prisoners had been released under amnesty over the past 13 years. At the same time, as it seems to observers, no one knows the real numbers of the convicted and released in Turkmenistan since 1991. In fact, there is no way to verify independently the official data and to monitor the situation, which is a serious human rights issue. Some Turkmen dissidents, who escaped Turkmen jails, divide Turkmenistan's population into three groups: the prisoners, the former prisoners, and the future prisoners.
According to International Human Rights Organizations, Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world. The government systematically violates virtually all rights. Torture is systematic in Turkmenistan, and after being tortured one is forced to thank the president for being so merciful.
The Committee to Protect Journalists named Turkmenistan as one of the “Top Ten” worst places in the world to be a journalist. Nurmuhammet Hanamov, head of Republican Party of Turkmenistan, who is currently in exile, says that nobody feels safe there, not even “Turkmenbashi the Great” himself, who is the most powerful man in Turkmenistan. “He was and still is afraid of losing power. This fear has made him increasingly distrustful, paranoid and suspicious. As a result of this, he seeks to hold the entire population under his control and turn the lives of millions into misery”.
“Though today you might be either a very important government official, a general, a diplomat, or a writer in Turkmenistan, it doesn't matter, for tomorrow you could very well be imprisoned, sent into exile, your property could easily be confiscated, or your house could be razed by bulldozers, by government orders. Hundreds of former government officials and former Ministry of National Security officers, tens of thousands of ordinary people are imprisoned or unemployed today. Most of the population of Turkmenistan lives under the poverty level” says the Turkmen politician.
Insiders claim that unemployment in Turkmenistan is as high as 50%. Local observers say that before independence, the Turkmen land had only corrupt communists; since independence, thanks to Turkmenistan's natural resources, corruption has doubled with the Turkish, Israeli, Iranian, Chinese, American, European and other business people from around the world. It has completely ruined Turkmenistan's weak and fragile economy.
According to Hudayberdi Orasov, a former Turkmen official, during the Soviet period, people could earn a little by producing cotton. Now all the profits from cotton, from natural gas and petroleum go to the president and his collaborators.
In some point of view, as the population of Turkmenistan becomes poorer, the crime rate, prostitution and the number of drug addicts grows; the regime of Turkmenbashi becomes stronger. Some experts say that, in seeking to secure his position as an absolute ruler, Nyyazov has created a social, political and moral crisis in Turkmenistan and further isolated the country from the rest of the world.
Nevertheless the government refuses to allow access for independent international observers to all prisoners in Turkmenistan and particularly to the longstanding possible prisoner of conscience Muhammetguli Aymuradov and Gurbandurdy Durdyguliev (who is still confined to a psychiatric hospital), to those jailed in relation to the attempt on Nyyazov on 25th November in 2002. On the contrary, state owned Turkmen media use every opportunity to praise the president as the Great Leader whom the Turkmen people have waited for centuries. On the face of it, one may start thinking of Nyyazov as the only person who fought for the return of freedom and statehood for the Turkmen. As a result, during the 16th session of the People's Council of Turkmenistan, on October 25th, members of the supreme legislative and deliberative body voted against the draft law of Turkmenistan “On election of the president of Turkmenistan”. Members of the People's Council, who were appointed by the president, resisted that they call Nyyazov a father and asked “who would dump their father in the middle of the road?”
According to Jumamyrat Kyyasov, head of a regional human rights group from Moscow, the propaganda of the for-life presidency in Turkmenistan reaches its culmination at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. “Turkmen TV broadcast blessings of petty criminals and their relatives for Nyyazov; they say long live Turkmenbashi the Great. Mothers, wives and sisters of pardoned cry with happiness, released prisoners shed tears hugging their loved ones. Moreover, on occasion of Aid Al-Fitr, Turkmen TV adds to these blessings of mullahs from different newly built mosques. They pray to the Almighty to help the Great President to continue his policy for further progress and prosperity of the Turkmen people. All this might be very touching for ordinary people, but it is the cover of a bleeding wound of the post-communist society” the activist said. Some intellectuals from Ashgabat say that Turkmen people are tormented under this inhuman policy more than in the Stalinist-times.
Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, says that the authorities use these amnesties to reduce the prison population for making room in overcrowded jails. But, in her opinion, they did not help those incarcerated for their political views. According to local observers, increasing unemployment and huge drug problems have created a long line in front of jails. “It seems to me that the authorities also use the judicial and law enforcement system for silencing their potential opponents” said the human rights activist.
A lawyer from Ashgabat who shared his thoughts with us on condition of anonymity says that the crisis in judicial and law enforcement system took its roots from the Soviet time. “It began from the 1970s. More than half of the students of the Turkmen high schools were children of high-level officials or well-connected people. Almost all the students of the judicial faculty of the Turkmen state university in Ashgabat were the elites children. After 1970s, almost every member of the communist elite had some privileges and it made them more corrupt. And this corrupt elite tried to use this opportunity to push ahead his or her offspring. Later they fulfilled the judicial and law enforcement system and their only goal was to take more and more bribes. Before 1991, there was control and the judicial and law enforcement staff was afraid of Moscow and so-called Russian speakers. In contrast to most Turkmens, they could write complaints. After independence, former Turkmen communists became masters of their own country and destroyed all legal systems created by Russian occupants. Taking bribes has become a norm and the law enforcement elite competed among themselves for ill-gotten money almost openly. In the first place, the so-called annual amnesties were fruitful for the law enforcement elite. Even the president of Turkmenistan once called the country's General Prosecutor to destroy one of her new built houses and take back a Mercedes given to her son-in-law” the lawyer said.
Despite this deepening crisis, Turkmen authorities deny all human rights abuses and try to hide the real situation from the international community. According to Amnesty International, Turkmen authorities attempted to prevent information about Gurbandurdy Durduguliev from reaching international media and human rights organizations. The authorities had disconnected his family's telephone line several times in the past. Reportedly, his wife was told by a doctor-who has referred to instructions received from the authorities-that if she passed on information about her husband's case to media outlets abroad, she would not be allowed to visit him again. Journalists Rahim Esenov, Ashyrguly Bayriev, and Halmyrat Gylychdurdyev were threatened and harassed by Ministry of National Security officials for working for RFE/RL. Despite all this, the information about Turkmen prison conditions is becoming more and more available abroad. A Turkmen journalist, Batyr Muhammedov, compared the Turkmen prison conditions to the concentration camps during the GULAG (“For 27 weeks in prison nightmare”, http://www.erkin.net/chronicle/batir.html), another Turkmen-born journalist, Nicolay Gerasimov, who left Turkmenistan recently with his 12 year-old daughter, gave a series of interviews to RFE/RL comparing Turkmen jail conditions to the Nazi Auschwitz. Parahat Yklymov, a Turkmen businessman, who has immigrated to Sweden, gave an interview about the corpses of dead prisoners in a jail corridor of Tejen. Several Afghani Turkmens told RFE/RL from Afghanistan about their experiences in Turkmen jails. They were arrested by Turkmen border guards in the border area between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. “I was regularly beaten; the interrogators demanded me to confess my uncommitted crimes. A hunk of bread was as valuable as gold” said one of the Afghani Turkmens. According to a lot of former detainees, beatings and starvation had been the most useful and widespread method for making the accused confess of all uncommitted crimes. By this method, the Turkmen interrogators made thousands of detainees give testimonies against themselves and others. During the hot summer months, from June to August, the overcrowded pre-trial detention centers were unbearable, and beatings and hunger were the reason of several protests in Ashgabat, Mary and Tejen prisons. But none of these protests make the authorities think about the increasing crisis; theyonly used force. The solution to the problem was to silence the protesters. One of the participants of the anti-government demonstration on 12 July in 1995 eye-witnessed the crackdown in the pre-trial detention center in Ashgabat. He said that the soldiers of the special forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs left about 30 corpses behind in the middle of the pre-trial detention yard. The government did not publish any information about this crackdown.
Former prisoner Batyr Batyrov has been taking medical treatment for several years in Sweden (his name was changed for security reasons). “I won't be able to forget two experiences. Both of them occurred in the pre-trial detention center of Ashgabat, near the Russian bazaar. We were sitting in an overcrowded cell. It was one of the hottest days and one of the detainees suddenly had difficulty breathing. We did not know he was ill with asthma. By immediately knocking the door we cried for help. The guard took the guy out to the corridor and poured boiling water into his mouth. Poor guy didn't even make it to scream. Later that day one of the inmates was called for questioning and on his way back he had seen the guy's swollen corpse on the corridor. The second cruelty occurred behind the wall, in a neighboring cell. We didn't see that one, but heard it. One day there had been brought a young woman. That night she was raped by some guards in her cell. She screamed and begged for help. But no one was able to help her. The other day we heard that she had hanged herself using her bra,” said Batyr Batyrov. In his opinion, the annual amnesties are nothing else than a beginning of a hunting season for new prisoners. Before the prisoners get to enjoy their freedom, the law enforcement officers re-fill the reduced population of the Turkmen jails. This situation has been repeated for more than ten years now.
But, in compared to previous years, the Turkmen president called to help the prisoners get a job in order to prevent them from committing crimes. Before doing so, he had called the jail authorities to replace the male guards with female guards in the women's prison in Dashoguz to avoid sexual abuses and rape. But, according to the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, the rape of female detainees are still continuing. The human rights organization recently wrote about a 25 year-old woman who was regularly beaten and raped for seven days in the Turkmenbashi pre-trial detention center before being sentenced for 13 years. According to medical documents, she was five months pregnant.
Human rights activist Jumamyrat Kyyasov says that a crisis in the judicial and law enforcement system has been deepening the prison problem in Central Asia since the Soviet's fall. “This serious problem was highlighted by the Andijan killings on 13th May. Recent protests in Kyrgyz jails were another message of this increasing problem in Central Asia. Because of this problem there are tens of thousands of ill-treated, tortured, robbed, hungry and angry people in jails and pre-trial custodies, wide spread bribery and unjust trials broke not only the convicted, but their families, children, relatives too,” said the activist.
According to Turkmen TV, released prisoners and their relatives are happy with the annual amnesties. Some of the pardoned cry “Long live, Turkmenbashi the Great!” Turkmen citizens have been watching these television programs for more than 13 years. But 12 year-old Tanya, who recently left the country with her father, says Turkmenbashi is not great. When her father Nicolay Gerasimov was sentenced to jail, she was moved to live in one of the orphanages. “I starved and was beaten in the orphanage,” she said.