Turkmenistan: Court should release ecologist Farid Tukhbatullin
The trial against Farid Tukhbatullin will apparently start on 4 March in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat. There are well-founded fears that he might face an unfair trial.
Furthermore Farid Tukhbatullin's lawyer has been denied access to his client under various pretexts four times since he last saw him more than a month ago. On 26 February, for example, he was told that he could not see Farid Tukhbatullin because of 'repair work' in the investigation-isolation prison of the Ministry of National Security.
'We believe that the charges against Farid Tukhbatullin were brought solely to punish him for exercising his internationally recognised right to freedom of expression and for his peaceful work as a civil society activist. He therefore should be released immediately,' a coalition of human rights groups said today.
Reliable sources reported that many detainees were tortured and ill-treated in the Ministry of National Security investigative isolator where Farid Tukhbatullin has been held for the past nine weeks.
Farid Tukhbatullin, co-chair of the Ecological Club in his home town Dashoguz, in Northern Turkmenistan, was arrested on 23 December 2002 and taken to the Ministry of National Security investigative isolator in the capital Ashgabat. He stands charged of illegally crossing the border from Uzbekistan into Turkmenistan (Article 214 of the Turkmen Criminal Code) and of concealing a serious criminal act (Article 212).
The first charge relates to an incident when Turkmen border guards for unknown reasons failed to stamp his passport upon his return from Uzbekistan. The latter charge concerns Farid Tukhbatullin's attendance of an international conference organised by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and Memorial Human Rights Centre, which was devoted to rights issues ranging from freedom of expression to the rights of the child. Farid Tukhbatullin was accused of refusing to disclose information about plans of exiled opposition groups to carry out an armed coup which, according to the authorities, were discussed at the conference.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, the International League for Human Rights, and the Memorial Human Rights Centre - whose delegates attended the conference - state that discussions at the conference forum did not include the violent overthrow of the government.
Pressure had mounted on Farid Tukhbatullin in the weeks following his return to Turkmenistan after the conference. Two weeks before his arrest Farid Tukhbatullin had been summoned to the regional branch of the Ministry of National Security in Dashoguz and questioned about his participation at the conference in Moscow. A senior official told him: 'We cannot forbid you to take part in conferences like that, but I hope you know what that can lead to.'
The human rights situation in Turkmenistan has been appalling for years, but has further deteriorated following an alleged armed attack on the President's motorcade in November 2002, which triggered a new wave of repression in the country.
For the past decade President Niyazov has presided over a disastrous human rights situation:
- The government tolerates no dissent, tightly controls the media and curtails freedom of expression.
- The only sanctioned religions are Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy; other religious faiths are persecuted.
- Ethnic minorities are discriminated against.
- Freedom of movement is severely restricted.
- The government does not allow non-governmental human rights organisations to operate.
- The government has banned the circus, opera, and philharmonic orchestra, and closed the Academy of Sciences.
On 25 November 2002 gunmen assaulted the president's armoured motorcade, injuring one person. President Niyazov was unharmed. The general crackdown following the attack may have emboldened the authorities to arrest the ecologist Farid Tukhbatullin and to curtail freedom of expression and the work of human rights defenders.
According to official reports, 67 people have been arrested on charges of involvement in the assassination attempt, although many believe the figures to be much higher. Many of those detained are family members of those associated with Turkmenistan's opposition-in-exile.
Fifty-nine people have been convicted in closed trials in courts, which lack judicial independence. The defendants did not have attorneys of their own choosing, and some of the government-appointed attorneys reportedly expressed, in public, disgust at the prospect of defending their clients. Many of the detainees were reportedly tortured and ill-treated to force them to confess or to incriminate others.