Asia-Pacific

Is Turkmenistan's human rights record fit for EU deal?

Annakurban Amanklychev
Image caption Annakurban Amanklychev is said to have been tortured in jail

Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world - so why is the EU considering closer economic ties with the Central Asian republic?

For almost four years Selbi Amanklychev did not know where her husband was, what state he was in, or if he was even alive.

All requests for information about Annakurban Amanklychev, a geography teacher turned human rights activist, were ignored by the authorities. His wife was warned not to mention his name in public.

When she finally saw him, it was inside a notorious prison in the desert bordering the Caspian Sea.

"It was a very emotional reunion," said Tadzhigul Begmetova, a fellow activist and founder of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation. "Annakurban was horribly thin, almost unrecognisable."

His fate is one of the topics that will be raised by members of the European Parliament (MEPs) travelling to Turkmenistan this week, as the EU decides whether to sign a trade deal with the country.

I met Mr Amanklychev when I visited Turkmenistan undercover in the autumn of 2005, to find out what it is like to live in one of the 21st Century's most repressive dictatorships.

He helped me with my radio documentary and drove me around the capital city, Ashgabat.

'Traitors'

In his battered car, we visited run-down neighbourhoods away from the showcase centre with its gleaming marble facades and gold-plated statues.

Image caption Turkmen jails are notorious for their overcrowding and rampant disease

In June 2006, six months after my trip, he was arrested while working for a French film crew. At first he and a fellow activist, Sapardurdy Khadzhiev, were accused of spying. Later, the charges were changed to illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.

According to Mr Amanklychev's family, the security services planted cartridges in his car. No witnesses were allowed to testify at the closed trial.

On state television, the men were accused of "gathering slanderous information to spread public discontent" and denounced as traitors. They got seven-year sentences.

Conditions in the prison near Turkmenbashi where he is held are said to be deplorable, with chronic overcrowding and a lack of food, medicine and clean water.

The climate is extreme, with winter temperatures plummeting to -20°С and summer heat waves of up to +50°С.

According to a report last year by a group of exiled Turkmen lawyers, the prison has the highest mortality rate of all the country's penitentiary facilities. Several inmates have died of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

Following his arrest, his wife lost her teaching job and her eldest child was expelled from his Ashgabat school. Other relatives were punished with dismissals.

Deprived of an income, the mother of three had to sell the family's possessions to survive. She was repeatedly harassed by agents of the MNB, the secret police.

New arrests

"They just wanted to show that there are some shortcomings in our country that need to be addressed and even our officials agree with that," said Ms Begmetova, who is also Sapardurdy Khadzhiev's sister-in-law.

"Talking about social issues and problems in education and health doesn't mean that you are betraying your country."

Image caption Tadzhigul Begmetova, founder of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, now lives in exile in Bulgaria

Many hoped Turkmenistan would change for the better after the death of the eccentric president-for-life Saparmurad Niyazov. When his successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov took over in December 2006, he released a handful of political prisoners.

Since then, however, the Turkmen government has refused to review any other cases and has not even acknowledged the existence of political prisoners. It is unknown how many people are languishing behind bars on politically motivated charges.

Last month a fresh wave of arrests of civil society activists took place, including that of an 80-year-old contributor to Radio Free Europe who was forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital.

A delegation of MEPs has just arrived in Ashgabat to assess the human rights situation in the country and to determine whether Europe should consent to deeper trade ties.

In June, the full parliament is expected to vote on whether a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement should go ahead.

This would provide better access to Turkmenistan's vast gas reserves. The EU's top diplomat, Baroness Catherine Ashton, has lobbied vigorously for it.

Last November she argued that the agreement provides the EU with "additional leverage to… promote its values, including human rights."

But Heidi Hautala, a Finnish MEP from the Green Party and a member of the visiting delegation, is sceptical.

"There are hardly any positive signals coming from Turkmenistan when it comes to respect for human rights or the rule of law," she said before her departure.

Apart from meeting government officials and President Berdymukhamedov, the delegation will also ask to visit political prisoners. They believe there is almost no chance of their gaining access to prisons like the one where Mr Amanklychev and Mr Khadzhiev are detained.

Last year the UN declared the men's imprisonment a violation of international law. A brief note sent to the US embassy in Ashgabat about medical and family visits is the only recent information about the men.

According to Ms Begmetova, Selbi Amanklychev was only granted permission to see her husband after pressure from organisations outside the country, including the European Parliament.

She added that relatives of political prisoners are praying that the delegation of MEPs coming to Ashgabat this week will "show a real commitment to human rights" and push the Turkmen government for more than "empty rhetoric".

You can hear more on Turkmenistan in Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 28 April at 1100 BST and on Monday 2 May at 2030 BST. You can also listen on the iPlayer or download the podcast.

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