UN human rights body echoes civil society concerns on Turkmenistan

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Following its March 2017 review of Turkmenistan, the United Nations Human Rights Committee – a key international human rights body – adopted conclusions and recommendations echoing civil society’s concerns over the ongoing, systematic violations of fundamental freedoms in this country. The Committee requested that Turkmenistan’s government provide specific information on the measures taken to implement the recommendations by March 2020.

The following update posted on the CIVICUS Monitor, an initiative to track civic space worldwide has been prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR):

Association

In its concluding observations on Turkmenistan’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UN Human Rights Committee criticised the serious restrictions on freedom of association in Turkmenistan – an issue which TIHR, IPHR and other civil society organisations (CSOs) have repeatedly raised. In particular, the Committee deplored the requirement for compulsory registration of public associations, the authorities’ broad powers to monitor the activities and finances of associations, and the broad legal grounds for closing them down by court order. It also expressed concern over the excessive restrictions on the establishment and operation of political parties, as well as the reported denials of registration of religious minority communities and the cases of office raids, intimidation, arrests and imprisonment of their members.

According to official statistics, there are no more than 118 public associations currently registered in the country, and some 40 percent of these are sports-affiliated organisations. Most registered associations are government-controlled (GONGOs). As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, while three political parties do exist in the country, all of them support the current president. According to the religious freedom monitoring group  Forum 18, several Protestant communities, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious minority communities have been unable to obtain legal status in the country.

The UN Human Rights Committee also criticised the failure of Turkmenistan’s authorities to recognise the right to conscientious objection to compulsory military service and the prosecution and imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing to perform this service. The Committee previously issued decisions in response to complaints submitted by conscientious objectors from Turkmenistan, concluding that their rights under the ICCPR had been violated. By ratifying the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, Turkmenistan has recognised the competence of the Committee to receive and consider complaints from its citizens concerning alleged violations of rights protected under the ICCPR. However, the Turkmen authorities have failed to comply with the Committee’s call to provide alternative civilian service and end its prosecution of conscientious objectors, arguing that compulsory military service is a “sacred state duty” and that it contravenes the “national mentality” to refuse to participate in the service.

Peaceful Assembly

As reported before by TIHR and IPHR in the CIVICUS Monitor, public protests rarely take place in Turkmenistan due to the repressive climate and the widespread fear of reprisals. At the same time, however, the authorities continue to force citizens to mobilise for public events that are carefully planned, rehearsed and executed to reinforce the government’s agenda and promote the image of the nation’s well-being.

Some recent examples of such government-led moblilisations include:

  • In April 2017, the third iteration of the ‘Month of Health and Happiness’ was celebrated in Turkmenistan with officially-sponsored sports events taking place across the country. Employees of state institutions and companies were not only required to take part in such events, but also forced to pay for the needed sportswear.
  • In connection with the Asian Games scheduled for September 2017 in the capital, Ashgabat, students and teachers are expected to be mobilised for various public events organised by the authorities. The Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that a decision has been provisionally made to re-schedule the start of the 2017-2018 school year in the capital, so schools will close for a month in September when the competition takes place.

In its concluding observations on Turkmenistan, the UN Human Rights Committee called on the authorities to revise the laws, regulations and practices to guarantee the right to freedom of assembly, ensure that participation in mass events is voluntary, and refrain from any reprisals for non-participation.

Expression

As TIHR and IPHR have previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the environment for free speech and independent media is highly restrictive in Turkmenistan.

Reporters Without Borders’ recently released its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, and Turkmenistan was ranked 178th of 180 countries, with only Eritrea and North Korea being ranked worse. This was the same ranking the country received in 2016 and reflects the deplorable situation for freedom of expression in the country.

In its concluding observations on Turkmenistan the UN Human Rights Committee criticised the absence of independent media, restrictions on internet access, dismantling of satellite dishes used to access foreign channels, as well as the intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment of and politically-motivated charges against journalists, human rights activists and dissidents.

As TIHR and IPHR previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, Turkmenistan’s government views national media as a tool for propaganda. When addressing a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers on 5th April 2017, President Berdymukhammedov indicated his willingness to manipulate media as an instrument of the government, stating that media have an obligation to “ensure wide coverage of the reforms in the country” and to facilitate these reforms by “promoting the successes and achievements of the motherland”.

In a recent example of government inference in the media, the president issued a decree on 10th April 2017 dismissing the director of the state-run Sport TV channel, Khanaliev Yuldashgeldy, on the grounds that he “did not comply with his duties”. According to Timur Mishrikhanov from the Netherlands-based Turkmenistan’s Independent Lawyers Association – a TIHR partner – this decree violates the provisions of the 2012 Media Law, wherein chief editors can be appointed and dismissed by the founder of the media outlets in question. In the case of Sport TV, this is the State Committee on TV, Radio and Cinematography – thus, a public institution within the exectutive branch, but not the president himself.

The briefing paper prepared by TIHR and IPHR for the EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue, which took place in Ashgabat in April 2017, provides more information on the current human rights situation in the country.