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Turkmenistan: Human Rights? What Human Rights?

The beginning of 2013 has been rich on news about Turkmenistan, with human rights and media freedoms in the country once more under the international spotlight. On January 4, the country enacted [ru] its first ever media law, which the global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders called a ‘fiction'.

It probably deserves the label, for, as Human Rights Watch reported last year, Turkmenistan's relationship with free media has always been better on paper than in practice:

In August 2011 Berdymukhamedov ordered that cable television replace satellite dishes. If enforced, the order would significantly curtail viewers’ access to information, especially foreign programming, since the government could at any point interfere with cable television broadcasts. Berdymukhamedov’s attempt in 2007 to dismantle satellite dishes failed due to an international outcry.

This view is shared by most netizens in Turkmenistan who believe that media freedoms and human rights in general are nothing but ‘fiction’ in the Caspian state. Commenting under a news report on Chrono-TM.org, reader ‘Zemlyachka' questions [ru] the very idea of human rights having a place in contemporary Turkmenistan:

Однажды моего знакомого спросили в американском посольстве в Туркменистане: «Как вы относитесь к тому,что в Туркменистане нарушаются права человека?». На что он ответил: «Как можно нарушать то,чего НЕТ»

A friend of mine was once asked in the US Embassy in Turkmenistan: “How do you feel about violations of human rights in Turkmenistan?” To which he responded: “How can you violate something that does not exist?”

Turkmenistan, a country listed among the world's “worst of the worst” human rights abusers by Freedom House, has its own National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.

Another reader, '45% v teni', laments [ru] the somewhat half-hearted attempts by Western countries to improve the human rights situation in the country:

Не чего они [западные страны] не решат… Курбангулы Президент умный. У него с Америкой, с Западом и с России все ОК, он все их условия выполняет, пока у него с ними все намази никто Туркменистан не в чем не обвинит. Если президент обидет Запад или Америку вод тогда ТОЛК БУДЕТ. А я уверен что он будет им Ж…. лизат как надо.

They [Western countries] will not solve any [human rights issues]… Gurbanguly [Berdymuhammedov] is a smart president. He has good relations with the US, Russia, and the West; he meets all their demands; as long as his relations with [these countries] are good, no one will accuse him of anything. If the presidents offends the West or the US, then something will happen of course. But I am sure that he will continue kissing their ass.

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pose for a photo with Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, the president of a country that's among the world's “worst of the worst” human rights abusers, according to Freedom House (New York, 2009). The photo is in the public domain.

President Berdimuhamedov with Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev and Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, 2009. Image by the Russian President's Office, available through Wikipedia (CC BY-3.0).

Turkmen dissident voices also focus on the issue of freedom of religion in the country. They claim that the oppressive state labels any action by religious organizations it does not favor as ‘extremist'. Fuchik recalls [ru] how the state security agents once charged her with membership in a ‘Wahhabi‘ group:

В 2006 году, в конце правления Туркменбаши, на меня наехало МНБ [Министерство национальной безопасности] с обвинениями в…ваххабизме- на основании только того, что я знаю арабский и работаю у арабов… Не уверена, что господа из министерства национальной безопасности вообще понимали, что такое ваххабизм.

In 2006, towards the end of Turkmenbashy‘s [president Saparmurat Niyazov] rule, MND [Ministry of National Security] officers accused me of… wahhabism, simply because I spoke Arabic and worked for the Arabs… I am not sure if the personnel of the ministry even understood what wahhabism was.

But netizens do not always argue for greater freedoms across the board. Such is the power of the government-endorsed mantra that “democracy doesn't happen overnight” – or even in twenty years of sovereign existence – that many have adopted relativist stances on media and other freedoms.

Under a YouTube video about Turkmenistan's latest comprehensive human rights report submitted to UN, several users debate media restrictions in the country. One user, ‘Emir3839′, argues [ru] that the Turkmen government has a ‘sovereign right’ to restrict media on ‘national security’ grounds:

сайты во всех цивилизованных странах мира контролируются и при надобности блокируются. если правительство Т-ана решило, что те или иные сайты могут нести опасность целостности или безопасности Т-ана, то это их суверенное право обезопасить себя и своих граждан.

All civilized nations of the world monitor websites and block access to some of them if needed. If the government of Turkmenistan decides that certain websites pose a threat to the integrity and security of Turkmenistan, it is their sovereign right to protect [the country] and its citizens [by blocking the websites].

With the potential for energy cooperation with Turkmenistan very much on the minds of policymakers in Washington and Brussels, the West is probably nodding sagely in agreement.

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