A United Nations Committee Against Torture report released June 6 rapped Turkmenistan for maintaining a “climate of impunity,” and called on Ashgabat to address systematic human rights abuses as a “matter of urgency.” The report should complicate efforts by the European Union and United States to tighten energy relations with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s regime.
Reports of torture are “numerous and consistent” and “there appears to be a climate of impunity resulting in the lack of meaningful disciplinary action or criminal prosecution against persons of authority accused of [torture],” according to the Committee Against Torture (CAT) report. [Click here to see the full report.]
The report called for the implementation of reforms that could “produce measurable results in the eradication of torture and ill-treatment by State officials.” It went on to call on Turkmen officials to guarantee detainees immediate access to legal representation, and for them to be informed of their rights upon being taken into custody. In addition, the CAT report said interrogations at police stations and detention facilities should be either audio- or videotaped “as a further means to prevent torture and ill-treatment.”
The committee noted that the Turkmen government did not follow CAT guidelines in preparing its May presentation in Geneva, thereby hampering the work of the rapporteurs. It noted that Ashgabat did not offer a full picture about the number of torture cases and how they were handled. Turkmen officials also did not provide sufficient data on prison occupancy rates and on the number of deaths of suspects while in custody. “[The] Committee regrets that it received only very limited information, other than about legal provisions,” the report said, adding that the lack of data “severely hampers the identification of possible patterns of abuse requiring attention.”
Turkmen officials in Ashgabat gave no immediate response to the report’s findings. Diplomats at Turkmenistan’s UN Embassy in Geneva were not available for comment .
Michael Laubsch, executive director of the Bonn-based Eurasian Transition Group, said that, given the lack of statistical data from the Turkmen side, the CAT’s concluding remarks were as strong “as could be expected.”
“There was no single aspect where the CAT could say there were real improvements. In the Turkmen report, if you could call it a report, no information was given to the UN regarding numbers and statistics,” he said. “I have my doubts that Turkmenistan is able or willing to respond in a manner where you could say [the CAT’s concluding remarks] will lead to substantial developments,” he said.
The release of the CAT’s findings and recommendations comes at an awkward time for Turkmenistan and the European Union. The EU is poised to ratify a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Ashgabat later this year. The PCA would upgrade trade relations, despite the existence of an Interim Trade Agreement which contains an unfulfilled human rights clause. The CAT report’s conclusions make it harder for Brussels to gloss over Ashgabat’s systematic rights abuses.
The CAT’s review should be used by the European Parliament to redefine Europe’s relationship with the gas rich state, Laubsch argued. “It is clear the promises that Turkmenistan made are unsubstantiated,” Laubsch said. “There needs to be new negotiations regarding human rights in Turkmenistan and this report can serve as a basis for discussion about how the EU should proceed.”
Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, described the CAT’s concluding remarks, as a “highly critical assessment serves as a stark reminder of the Turkmen government’s exceptionally abusive record.”
“The EU would do well in noting, and learning from, the committee’s careful emphasis on the need for ‘measurable results,’ as opposed to empty dialogue and cooperation,” she said. “EU member states and others looking to engage with the [Turkmen] government should make it their business to promote the reform steps the committee has identified as necessary, and link any enhancement in relations to the Turkmen government’s fulfilling them.”
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.