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Helsinki Commission Documents Deplorable State of Human Rights in Turkmenistan

WASHINGTON – “Under the leadership—or should I say misrule—of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan has become the worst-case scenario of post-Soviet development,” said Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) yesterday at a hearing, The State of Democratization and Human Rights in Turkmenistan. “Alone of the post-Soviet bloc countries, Turkmenistan remains a one-party state. But even that party is a mere shadow of the former ruling Communist Party—all the real power resides in the country’s dictator, who savagely crushes any opposition or criticism,” said Smith.

Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) reminded the hearing, “When Turkmenistan was admitted to the OSCE in 1992, it accepted all existing Helsinki commitments and declared its determination to act in accordance with these provisions.” Citing the arrest of leading opposition figure Nurberdy Nurmamedov, Campbell called upon the State Department to press this case and those of other political prisoners.

Ranking Member Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD) commented, “When the USSR signed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, Moscow had no intention of observing the commitments. In time, these commitments and the principles behind them played a key role in undermining Soviet totalitarianism. Perhaps, therefore, it would be wiser to remain engaged, keep pressing and wait for circumstances to change. We must continue our engagement with dissidents as well. The public and repeated criticism within the OSCE process had effect, in part, because of the courageous stand of dissidents from within. If dictators can deal with dissidents anonymously, then the dissidents have no means of defense.”

Commissioner Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) offered, “Given the troubling litany of violations of religious liberty, now is the time for the Government of Turkmenistan to enter into a new era of tolerance for religious minorities. In this era of dramatic change throughout the former Soviet Union, now Turkmenistan has the opportunity to embrace religious freedom, which is one of the litmus tests for a truly civil society.”

Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) said, “By every measure Turkmenistan is violating its OSCE commitments.…In bulldozing the Hari Krishna temple last August and the Seventh Day Adventist church last November in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan became the only OSCE country to actually destroy places of worship.”

The hearing witnesses included John Beyrle, Principal Deputy to the Ambassador-at-Large and Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for New Independent States; Avdy Kuliev, Turkmen opposition leader in exile; Polish diplomat Pyotr Iwaszkiewicz, formerly of the OSCE Office in Ashgabat; Firuz Kazemzadeh, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Cassandra Cavanaugh of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki; and E. Wayne Merry, of the Atlantic Council of the United States. The hearing was part of an ongoing series convened by the Commission to assess the state of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the countries of Central Asia. The text of the formal testimony may be accessed at the Commission website, www.csce.gov.

Beyrle commented, “We have seen only minimal success in advancing our policies. Rule of Law is respected little by this government. The treatment of believers will have a significant impact on our determination made under the International Religious Freedom Act. It would be difficult for us to certify Turkmenistan for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program considering their human rights situation.”

Iwaszkiewicz described how the Turkmen authorities tried to control the outreach and reporting activity of the OSCE center in Ashgabat by warning the local population not to contact the center. Merry recommended, “We must face facts, the ability of the United States to influence such a regime toward genuine democracy, civil liberties, and accountable government is nil.…This Commission should seriously consider whether Turkmenistan has any business in the OSCE. Niyazov’s regime flagrantly violates its Helsinki commitments. Unlike some participating States in the region where one can at least hope that an OSCE presence may slowly change things for the better, Turkmenistan is barren ground so long as its current power system exists,” he concluded.

Kazemzadeh suggested the United Nations Human Rights Committee discuss Turkmenistan’s human rights violations in Geneva. Ms. Cavanaugh said Human Rights Watch, “strongly urges that conditionality for any form of non-humanitarian assistance to Turkmenistan, particularly new Ex-Im credits for any purpose, must be strict. Currently, they are weak, and even minimal human rights considerations required by Ex-Im Bank policy, for example, are seemingly ignored.”

Background: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declined to observe Turkmenistan’s December 1999 parliamentary election, and delegates to the meeting of the People’s Assembly later that month essentially approved making Saparmurat Niyazov “president-for-life.” In sum, Turkmenistan has become the worst-case scenario of post-Soviet development. With the U.S. Government seeking Ashgabat’s cooperation in constructing a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, this hearing provides a timely opportunity to discuss the country’s prospects for democratization, fair elections and observance of human rights, and how the United States can promote Turkmenistan’s observance of OSCE commitments.

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