The Nightmare in Turkmenistan

The Nightmare in Turkmenistan

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
108th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Friday, November 21, 2003

Mr. Speaker, November 25 will mark the one-year anniversary of events in Turkmenistan that turned that already bizarre autocracy into an even more nightmarish kingdom. According to the official version, opposition groups led by former high-ranking officials tried to assassinate Saparmurat Niyazov, the country's President-for-Life. The attempt failed, the plotters were found, tried and imprisoned, and in the eyes of Niyazov's regime, justice has been done.

 

What actually happened that day is unclear. There may well have been a coup attempt against Niyazov, who has turned himself into virtually a living god. Or, as some opposition activists in exile maintain, the whole affair may have been staged by Niyazov to crack down even harder. Since no outsider has had access to those arrested in connection with the events, the truth may never be known.

 

Whatever happened, it is easy to understand the desperate frustration among Turkmen. Niyazov has made Turkmenistan the only one-party state in the former Soviet space, where one man decides everything, no opposition is permitted, all media are totally censored and the populace is forced to study the "rukhnama"--a dictator's rantings that purport to be a one-stop religion, national history and morality lesson.

 

What is clear is that Niyazov's response to November 25 has trampled on civilized norms, even if his allegations are true. In the wake of the arrests, all opposition--real or imagined--has been crushed. Quick show trials of the accused were broadcast on television, after which they received long prison sentences with no access to relatives or international organizations. Some of the opposition leaders have already died in prison. One individual who was arrested, an American citizen named Leonid Komarovsky of Massachusetts was eventually released, as a result of pressure from Washington. Upon gaining his freedom, he told the world of the horrible tortures people suffered at the hands of Turkmen security forces. The stories rival any we used to hear from the Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In addition, relatives of those deemed "enemies of the people" have been targeted for persecution. The luckier ones merely are fired and thrown out of their apartments onto the streets; others have been arrested and tortured in prison or forced to watch their loved ones being tortured.

 

In response to this crisis, the OSCE invoked the Moscow Mechanism, a rarely-used tool to investigate particularly appalling human rights violations. But Niyazov refused to cooperate with the OSCE, whose officially designated rapporteur was denied a visa. Nevertheless, he was able to compile a comprehensive dossier of horror, which documents as well as possible without access to prisons, the mistreatment and abuse of those arrested and the persecution of their relatives. The rapporteur also forwarded to the Government of Turkmenistan recommendations to move towards reform. Niyazov has dismissed them as "offensive" and "interference in internal affairs."

 

Niyazov has also refused U.S. officials entry to his jails. Recently, Ambassador Stephen Minikes, head of the U.S. Delegation to OSCE visited Ashgabat, but despite his explicit request, was not allowed to check on the health of one of those arrested: former Turkmen Foreign Minister and OSCE Ambassador Batyr Berdiev. There are persistent rumors he has died in prison.

 

One year after the events of November 25, Saparmurat Niyazov remains in power. He continues his crackdown, and the country's downward spiral accelerates. Niyazov has reintroduced exit visas, a legacy of the Soviet past we thought had been definitively overcome. Just last week, he instituted new laws harshly restricting freedom of religion, which is trampled upon daily in Turkmenistan; groups brave enough to meet risk home raids, imprisonment, deportation, internal exile, house eviction and even torture. The new provisions further empower regime agents to squash religious practice. Now, individuals caught more than once in a year acting on the behalf of an unregistered community can be fined between ten and thirty months of wages, or be sent to hard labor for up to one year. Of course, registration is in effect impossible to obtain, leaving religious communities and their members in a highly vulnerable position.

 

A recent Niyazov decree on NGO activity makes it punishable for most Turkmen to interact with foreigners. Representatives of non-Turkmen ethnic groups, such as Uzbeks or Russians, face discrimination in education and employment. Niyazov has not only reestablished and strengthened the environment of fear, he has deliberately isolated his country from outside influences. Under his rule, Turkmenistan has no chance of developing normally.

 

As November 25 approaches, we recall that when a political system centralizes all power in the hands one man, offering no possibilities for participation to anyone else, people may be tempted to change that system by any means. And we have occasion to consider the eternal validity of Lord Acton's dictum: "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

 

Unfortunately, the U.S. response to Turkmenistan's blatant disregard for human rights has been shamefully weak. In August, although Turkmenistan violates freedom of emigration by requiring exit visas, the Administration made the astonishing decision to exempt Turkmenistan from Jackson-Vanik requirements on the free movement of citizens.

 

Our leverage on this particular dictator may be weak but we have opportunities to express our outrage about these ongoing abuses and to align ourselves with the forces of freedom and democracy. In addition to ending the Jackson-Vanik waiver, the State Department should designate Turkmenistan a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The regime's well-documented record of "particularly severe violations of religious freedom" unquestionably meets the statutory threshold envisioned when we passed the Act of "systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom."

 

The United States and the international community must condemn the actions of Niyazov's regime and continue working to bring Turkmenistan back towards civilized and democratic norms. Any other approach betrays our own principles.

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    Well-documented Russian bombings and missile strikes in Ukraine have decimated hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings, including a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of children were sheltering and the Kramatorsk rail station where thousands were waiting to escape the Russian onslaught. The withdrawal of Russian troops from towns like Bucha, Chernihiv, and Sumy has revealed horrific scenes of civilian carnage, mass graves, and reports of rape and torture. Several world leaders have accused Russia of committing genocide against the people of Ukraine. In March, 45 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) states began proceedings to “establish the facts and circumstances of possible cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity…and to collect, consolidate, and analyze this information with a view to presenting it to relevant accountability mechanisms.”  The resulting report, issued on April 14, found “clear patterns of international humanitarian law violations by the Russian forces” and recommended further investigations to “establish individual criminal responsibility for war crimes.” The Government of Ukraine, Ukrainian NGOs, and the International Criminal Court are collecting evidence for use in future legal proceedings. Witnesses at the hearing discussed the findings of the OSCE report, examined evidence being collected to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and analyzed paths to bring perpetrators to justice.   Related Information Witness Biographies  

  • Russian War Crimes in Ukraine to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIAN WAR CRIMES IN UKRAINE Wednesday, May 4, 2022 NEW TIME: 2:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Well-documented Russian bombings and missile strikes in Ukraine have decimated hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings, including a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of children were sheltering and the Kramatorsk rail station where thousands were waiting to escape the Russian onslaught. The withdrawal of Russian troops from towns like Bucha, Chernihiv, and Sumy has revealed horrific scenes of civilian carnage, mass graves, and reports of rape and torture. Several world leaders have accused Russia of committing genocide against the people of Ukraine. In March, 45 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) states began proceedings to “establish the facts and circumstances of possible cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity…and to collect, consolidate, and analyze this information with a view to presenting it to relevant accountability mechanisms.”  The resulting report, issued on April 14, found “clear patterns of international humanitarian law violations by the Russian forces” and recommended further investigations to “establish individual criminal responsibility for war crimes.” The Government of Ukraine, Ukrainian NGOs, and the International Criminal Court are collecting evidence for use in future legal proceedings. Witnesses at the hearing will discuss the findings of the OSCE report, examine evidence being collected to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and analyze paths to bring perpetrators to justice.   The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Panel 1: OSCE Experts Wolfgang Benedek, Professor of International Law (ret.), University of Graz Veronika Bílková, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Charles University in Prague Marco Sassoli, Professor of International Law, University of Geneva Panel 2 Beth Van Schaack, U.S. Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University; Permanent Fellow, the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna Iryna Venediktova, Prosecutor General, Ukraine

  • Helsinki Commission Calls on Russia to Release 'True Patriot' Kara-Murza

    A U.S. human rights monitor is calling for the release of journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian opposition figure who has spoken out against what he has called his government's crackdown on dissent. The U.S. Helsinki Commission on Monday raised alarm over the detention of Kara-Murza in Moscow a month after he outlined the Kremlin's increased use of propaganda and censorship. His arrest is the latest report of authorities attempting to silence critics since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February. "We are alarmed to learn that Vladimir Kara-Murza has been detained in Moscow. Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people," the commission said in a statement. "He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately." The commission, a U.S. government agency comprised of members of Congress and representatives from federal agencies, heard testimony from Kara-Murza who described how the Russian government has used disinformation and the growing struggles of independent media outlets. The Russian government in March enacted new restrictions, criminalizing media from using the word "invasion" to describe the conflict in Ukraine. Those who violate them could face up to 15 years in prison. Speaking before the commission, Kara-Murza said that following the invasion, Putin moved swiftly against "what remained of independent media in Russia." Kara-Murza said that within days, authorities shuttered independent outlets, including Echo of Moscow, a radio station where he hosted a weekly program. He also pointed to how the Russian government has blocked access to social media networks. Other news outlets, such as highly respected Novaya Gazeta, ceased publication because of censorship, he said. Calling many Russians "brainwashed," he said many are not even aware of potential war crimes their government is alleged to have committed in Ukraine. "Today, most Russians are in an Orwellian parallel reality created by the Kremlin propaganda machine," Kara-Murza told the commission. "And I mean, Orwellian in the literal sense, what's being said on Russian state television might as well have come out of George Orwell's 1984: 'War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.'" Since Russia's new censorship laws have gone into effect, reports have emerged of students or parents turning in teachers who spoke disapprovingly of the war. Nobel Prize laureate and editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, was attacked on a train. Russian authorities have also threatened Wikipedia with a nearly $50,000 fine for refusing to delete "illegal information." Kara-Murza, an author and politician who was repeatedly poisoned, has continued speaking out despite his arrest, making an appearance on MSNBC on Sunday.

  • Chairman Cardin, OSCE participating States Commit to Countering Anti-Semitism at Annual Conference in Warsaw

    By Ryn Hintz, Paulina Kanburiyan, and Worth Talley, Max Kampelman Fellows, and Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE On February 7 – 8, 2022, the OSCE’s Polish Chair-in-Office organized a high-level conference in Warsaw on Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region with the support of OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR). During the event, government officials, experts, civil society organizations, and the private sector underscored the ongoing threat that anti-Semitism poses not only to Jewish communities, but to democracy everywhere, and the shared responsibility to fight it. In a series of exchanges with experts over two days, more than 100 participants from over 25 countries unilaterally condemned anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, discriminatory prohibition of religious practices, and other manifestations of prejudice against the Jewish community. They also discussed innovative history education, youth engagement, and legislative responses to foster Jewish life. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, opened the event by underscoring the need for sustained, coordinated action to end the pervasive anti-Semitism plaguing the OSCE region. “Although recalling the Holocaust is painful, it seems as if we have not fully learned our lesson,” he said. Law Enforcement: A Partner in Combating Hate Speech and Scapegoating OSCE Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism Rabbi Andrew Baker led a session where panelists highlighted the rise in anti-Semitic hate speech, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories since the onset of the global pandemic. Participating States then shared effective national policies and strategies, including best practices of partnering with law enforcement. Addressing Anti-Semitism Online: A Shared Responsibility OSCE Advisor on Combating Anti-Semitism Mikolaj Wrzecionkowski moderated a discussion on steps the private sector, civil societies and governments can take to combat the spread of anti-Semitism online, including actively challenging anti-Semitic algorithms and hashtags, appointing points of contact to address concerns about anti-Semitic content, and promoting educational initiatives among young people, educators, and companies to increase media literacy. The United Kingdom’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, Rt. Honorable Lord Eric Pickles, again underscored the importance of joint action. “At a time of distortion and contempt for our fellow human beings, we need to be able to see our own faces in the faces of strangers,” he stated. Beyond Combatting Anti-Semitism: The Need to Actively Foster Jewish Life Dr. Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, led a discussion on the challenges and successes of states, cities, and societies in fostering vibrant Jewish communities to both resist the spread of anti-Semitism and uplift Jewish history, culture, and tradition. Panelists shared examples of initiatives to restore cemeteries and monuments, open museums, and compile educational and cultural resources online. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, illustrated the interconnectivity between fostering Jewish life and democracy by discussing recent legislative backlash against Jewish religious practices like circumcision and kosher preparation of meals, further stressing that regulations on these practices must not be prohibitive and should be formed in collaboration with Jewish communities. The Centrality of Education to Address Anti-Semitism and Anti-Roma Discrimination A session moderated by Kishan Manocha, ODIHR’s Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, highlighted the importance of new and innovative education initiatives to address root causes of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma discrimination. Panelists highlighted the need for cross-cultural exposure to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Roma attitudes and build greater connections between those inside and outside Jewish and Roma communities. Policymakers noted the ability to use interactive and digital tools to address histories of discrimination, related not only to the Holocaust but also to Jewish history and contributions to culture and the world. Despite advancements, participants acknowledged that challenges remain: online courses suffer from low completion rates and some curricula address the subject of anti-Roma discrimination only tangentially.  Panelists agreed that addressing anti-Roma discrimination also requires a holistic, inter-curricular approach that builds upon knowledge both of the genocide of Roma and Sinti, and of their histories and cultures. To close the conference, Plenipotentiary of Poland’s Ministry Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Paweł Kotowski called on participants to continue their important work to defeat anti-Semitism and anti-Roma discrimination.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest January 2022

  • Helsinki Commission Marks One-Year Anniversary of Navalny’s Imprisonment

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the one-year anniversary of Alexei Navalny’s arrest on January 17, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “In the past year, while Alexei Navalny has remained unjustly imprisoned, the Kremlin has doubled down on its absurd persecution of his anti-corruption organizations as ‘extremist,’” said Chairman Cardin. “Nevertheless, Mr. Navalny’s colleagues, friends and allies, in the face of grave threats, continue to risk their own freedom to expose Putin’s thuggery across Russia.” “Putin would not have gone to the trouble to imprison Alexei Navalny unless he perceived a serious threat to his power,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Mr. Navalny and his team across Russia were instrumental in revealing the ill-gotten gains of Putin and his cronies. This tells you all you need to know about why they are a target.” “During his imprisonment, Alexei Navalny has used his own suffering to call attention to the plight of the hundreds of other political prisoners in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “We have not forgotten him or others who are persecuted for their beliefs, and we look forward to a Russia in which they finally are free.” “Despite the Kremlin’s attempts to push Alexei Navalny out of public view and prevent him from challenging Putin, we will not stop calling for his release,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russians who challenge Putin should not have to fear for their safety in their own country.” In August 2020, Alexei Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt by the FSB that used a Russia-developed chemical weapon in the Novichok family. He spent months recovering after being flown to Berlin for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17, 2021, and was arrested at the airport. In February, a Russian judge sentenced Navalny to three and a half years in a prison colony for violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that is widely considered to be politically motivated. Previous time served under house arrest reduced his prison time to two years and eight months. In June, the Moscow City Court ruled that Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional networks would henceforth be considered “extremist” organizations, essentially outlawing these groups and criminalizing their activity. In September, Russian authorities opened a new probe against Navalny and his closest associates for creating and directing an “extremist network.” This, combined with other ongoing criminal investigations, could lead to additional jail time for Navalny and threaten those associated with his organizations, many of whom have been forced to flee Russia.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Peaceful Solution in Kazakhstan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the violent clashes between protesters and authorities in Kazakhstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are deeply concerned about the situation in Kazakhstan and condemn the violence that has accompanied widespread protests across the country. The reported deaths of both protesters and police are extremely disturbing. “We call on President Tokayev and Russian troops not to use disproportionate force against protesters. At the same time, we call on protesters to cease any violent attacks against police, public buildings, or private property. “We urge both sides to find a peaceful way to resolve this crisis. We also urge President Tokayev to ensure respect for human rights, especially freedom of the media and the right to due process for those who have been arrested in connection with the protests.” A wave of protests began on January 2 in the western part of the oil- and gas-rich country in response to a sharp increase in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). The unrest spread quickly to other parts of Kazakhstan and grew increasingly violent. Authorities deployed tear gas and stun grenades against protesters and blocked internet access in an effort to quell the unrest, while demonstrators attacked government offices. There are reports of deaths among both law enforcement and protesters, as well as of widespread looting. Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared a nationwide state of emergency on January 5, accepted the resignation of his cabinet, and reduced LPG prices, but protests continued. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security alliance among select former Soviet states including Russia, is sending Russian troops at the request of President Tokayev. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated already strained economic and social disparities, and demonstrators are demanding increased political liberalization and accountability for government corruption. OSCE observers concluded that the 2021 parliamentary elections “lacked genuine competition” and underscored the need for political reform.

  • Remembering Sergei Magnitsky

    Madam President, 12 years ago this Tuesday, Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in Moscow at the hands of prison guards who, instead of treating him for the acute illness that his torturous, year-long detention provoked, beat him for over an hour.  He was found dead in his cell shortly thereafter.  His “crime” was exposing the largest tax fraud in Russian history, perpetrated by government officials.  He was 37 years old and left a loving family and many friends. At the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, we had heard of Sergei’s plight months earlier and we were saddened and outraged that such a promising life had been cut short and that so few expected his murderers to be held to any account. Impunity for the murder of journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and now a simple, honest citizen was, and remains, a depressing cliché in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s rule while his regime often ruthlessly punishes people for minor infractions of the law.  For those on the wrong side of the Kremlin, the message is clear — and chilling.  Even the most damning evidence will not suffice to convict the guilty nor will the most exculpatory evidence spare the innocent. The need for justice, in Russia, in this specific case does not diminish with the passage of time.  Moreover, the “doubling down” on the cover-up of Sergei’s murder and the massive tax heist he exposed implicates a wider swath of Russian officials with the guilt of this heinous crime.  It does not need to be this way, however; nor is it ever too late for a reckoning in this case in the very courtrooms that hosted the show trials that ultimately led to Sergei’s death and the obscenity of his posthumous conviction. As somber as this occasion is, there is reason for hope.  Vladimir Putin will not rule Russia forever and every passing day brings us closer to that moment when someone new will occupy his post.  Who that person will be and whether this transition will usher in a government in Russia that respects the rights of its citizens and abides by its international commitments remains unclear.  I hope it does.  A Russian government that returns to the fold of responsible, constructive European powers would increase global security, enhance the prosperity of its own citizens and trading partners, and bring new vigor to tackling complex international challenges such as climate change. Sergei’s work lives on in his many colleagues and friends who are gathering in London this week to celebrate his life and to recognize others, like him, who seek justice and peace in their countries, often facing, and surmounting, seemingly impossible obstacles.  All too often, they pay a heavy price for their courageous integrity. Sergei’s heroic legacy is exemplified in the global movement for justice sparked by his death, and in the raft of Magnitsky laws that began in this chamber and have now spread to over a dozen countries, including allies like Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.  Even as these laws help protect our countries from the corrupting taint of blood money and deny abusers the privilege of traveling to our shores, they also remind those who suffer human right abuses at the hands of their own governments that we have not forgotten them. Sergei Magnitsky is a reminder to all of us that one person can make a difference.  In choosing the truth over lies, and sacrifice over comfort, Sergei made a difference and will never be forgotten. Fifty-five years ago, Senator Robert F. Kennedy addressed the National Union of South African Students and spoke about human liberty.  He spoke about freedom of speech and the right “to affirm one's membership and allegiance to the body politic – to society.”  He also spoke about the commensurate freedom to be heard, “to share in the decisions of government which shape men's lives.”  And he stated that government “must be limited in its power to act against its people so that there may be … no arbitrary imposition of pains or penalties on an ordinary citizen by officials high or low”.  Senator Kennedy went on to say, Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. Madam President, Sergei Magnitsky stood up for an ideal.  He acted to improve the lot of others.  He struck at injustice.  He was – and remains – a ripple of hope.  On this sad anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s murder, let us all recommit ourselves to helping those in Russia, and around the world, who seek their rightful share in the governance of their own countries and who deserve the confidence of doing so without fear of harm.  If we do this, Sergei will not have died in vain. I am confident that one day, there will be a monument in stone and bronze to Sergei in his native Russia.  Until that day, the laws that bear his name will serve as his memorial.

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