The Human Rights Committee this morning concluded its consideration of the fourth periodic report of Turkmenistan on how it implements the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with Committee Experts commending a commitment to review judicial independence, and raising issues concerning corruption and targeting of human rights defenders.
A Committee Expert commended the State party’s policy framework review of 2017 to revise the administration of justice and judicial independence and looked forward to its implementation. Corrupt trials had reportedly been used to silence political opponents. What measures were in place to fight against corruption? Contracts given to friends and family members of those in Government were of particular concern.
The Expert also said that reports of torture, inhumane treatment and death in pretrial detention for political religious leaders as well as human rights defenders prison were concerning. The Committee had issued Views on the death in custody of activist Ogulsapar Muradova, finding the State party responsible. Why had the State party not taken any action on the Views adopted, and could it provide a clear timeline to fulfil its obligations based on the Committee’s Views?
In response, the delegation said that Turkmenistan had acceded to the Convention on Corruption. A financial monitoring program identified money laundering and its connections with financing terrorism. Awareness raising among the public to combat corruption was underway. Claims about corrupt trials of political opponents had no basis.
On the issue of Ms. Muradova, the delegation said she had committed suicide in prison. No criminal charges were brought against her. Her family was notified and staff were disciplined. The State was not at fault for Ms. Muradova’s death. An independent State commission was set up to investigate her death. A statement had been released by a group of prominent Western States recognising that her death was not suspicious.
In concluding remarks, Hajiyev Vepa, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan thanked the Experts for a constructive and open debate. All unanswered questions would be answered to the extent possible under the State party’s obligations. After each dialogue with treaty bodies, the State party always noted positive steps forward.
Tania María Abdo Rocholl, Committee Chairperson, in concluding remarks, said that, during the dialogue, questions were asked about non-discrimination based on sexual orientation and of women, independence of the judiciary, enforced disappearances, freedom of expression and religion, forced labour, and the right of Special Rapporteurs to visit the country. The Committee would optimise its observations to ensure implementation of the Covenant.
The delegation of the Turkmenistan was made up of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Institute of State, Law and Democracy, the Ministry of Justice, the Committee on protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Supreme Court; and the Permanent Mission of Turkmenistan to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Human Rights Committee’s one hundred and thirty-seventh session is being held from 27 February to 24 March. All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage. Meeting summary releases can be found here. The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings can be accessed via the UN Web TV webpage.
The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m., Thursday 2 March to begin its consideration of the fourth periodic report of Zambia (CCPR/C/ZMB/4).
The Committee has before it the third periodic report of Turkmenistan (CCPR/C/TKM/3).
Presentation of the Report
Hajiyev Vepa, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, said in 2022, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Turkmenistan and the United Nations on the implementation of a national programme for social and economic development of Turkmenistan between 2022 and 2025. Under this programme, 26 work plans and policies on media, gender policy and children’s rights as well as other themes had been developed. Turkmenistan had worked to implement the Sustainable Development Goals and presented its first voluntary national review on them. Plans of action for human rights, gender equality, and children’s rights had been implemented. A national plan to eliminate statelessness was approved in 2019 and under its framework, over 28,000 people obtained citizenship of Turkmenistan.
Civil and political rights were of high regard. In January 2023, constitutional law was amended to include a “Khalk Maslakhaty” or People’s Council to facilitate cooperation between the highest Government bodies and other State branches. Its diverse makeup ensured representation of all peoples in society, ensuring national and political harmony. A digital transition was underway. The Unified State Services Website had been created to receive questions about any Government matter. A democratic, multi-party electoral system was created while measures were put in place to ensure transparency. Parliamentary elections were slated for March of this year. Notably, a single voting day was established, which would improve the quality of elections.
Turkmenistan had in 2020 acceded to the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 144 to promote the adoption of international labour standards, to the Marrakesh Treaty, the Convention against Discrimination in Education and the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
Turkmenistan took effective measures in a timely manner to counter the COVID-19 pandemic. A national strategy was formed which included a set of financial, legal and medical measures aiming to prevent a large loss of human life. The Parliament elected an Ombudsperson by secret ballot and established the Ombudsperson’s office. The Ombudsperson submitted a report on human rights annually to the President, who then presented it to Parliament. Following the Asia Pacific Forum 2022, recommendations were received from the Forum’s capacity building office regarding capacity building within the Ombudsperson.
Further constitutional reform included laws on social services, labour relations, the legal status of foreign citizens in Turkmenistan, education and a new edition of the Criminal Code, which notably decriminalised some offenses to further align the law with the Covenant. The Social, Labour and Tax Codes were all amended in accordance with the Covenant as well. The Conference of Judges of Turkmenistan had on 19 January 2019 introduced a Code of Judicial Ethics.
Turkmenistan would continue to improve national system for the protection of human rights, including legal and institutional components. Special attention would be paid to the implementation of international obligations in the field of human rights and the recommendations of the United Nations treaty bodies.
Questions by Committee Experts
A Committee Expert said that Turkmenistan had faced serious challenges in civil and political rights since 2017, its last periodic review. Turkmenistan had adopted the first Optional Protocol to the Covenant. The Committee had received complaints on wire-tapping and unfair trials. It had issues 26 Views related to Turkmenistan and none had been implemented. Did Turkmenistan plan to implement them? What laws had been enacted since 2021 to comply with international human rights standards? Had international human rights standards been invoked or used within court cases since 2017? 15 special procedures mandate holders, including the Special Rapporteur on torture and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial or summary or arbitrary executions, had requested visits to Turkmenistan. Why were all of them but the Special Rapporteur on cultural rights denied? What other actions had been taken to collaborate with other United Nations human rights mechanisms? The Ombudswoman seemed to be the only way to enforce human rights. However, the Ombudswoman reportedly did not see those filing complaints in person. Written communications were reportedly not replied to. What measures would be put in place to facilitate access to the Ombudswoman’s office? How had the office been strengthened? The Committee expected the office to be in line with the Paris Principles. What legal means were available to complainants to the Ombudswoman? The Ombudswoman had visited many prisons but had not had access to Owadan-depe, infamous for torture. How could she carry out her mission under such circumstances? Reports of forced disappearances and incommunicado detainments were alarming. Why were requests for a visit by the working group for the Committee on Enforced Disappearances in 2017 rejected? No independent non-governmental organizations were allowed to operate within the country. Would non-governmental organizations be allowed to operate to ensure independence?
The Committee was concerned about the broad definition of extremism in the anti-extremism act. What standards had been put in place to bring such legislation in line with the Covenant? Numerous reports indicated that citizens had been arbitrarily detained for speaking critically of the Government. How would these victims be compensated? How many prisoners had been convicted of Islamic extremism since 2017 and under what laws? Did the State plan to release persons imprisoned contrary to frameworks in the Covenant? Anti-extremism legislation had been used to prevent political activists from traveling. How many people had been prevented from traveling under the laws?
A Committee Expert said corruption was reportedly endemic and structural in Turkmenistan. Though the country had acceded to the Convention against Corruption, no progress had been made on the issue. Corruption was found in all aspects of life, including in labour camps wherein labourers needed to pay to see their family members. Corruption trials had been used to silence political opponents. What measures were in place to fight against corruption? How was awareness raised in the State? Were there training programmes for the judiciary and police officers? Contracts given to friends and family members of those in Government were of particular concern. Did Government authorities have to declare their wealth transparently?
What measures had been taken to enact a law combatting discrimination of all kinds? What were the remedies available to victims of discrimination based on ethnicity, religious or political beliefs? What measures were in place to prevent or criminalize hate speech? Have there been trials, penalties or sanctions? What was the status of efforts to repeal article 135, which criminalised sexual relations between adults of the same sex? What education measures were in place to fight stereotypes regarding sexuality? Were there measures in place to hold police accountable for their reported targeted harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people?
Another Committee Expert noted that the Committee’s recommendations from the previous reporting period had not been implemented. Who could declare a state of emergency? How was the state of emergency enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic proportional to the events at the time? What was the impact on the travel ban? What sanctions were issued if the curfew was not obeyed? Reports received described the denial of the presence of COVID-19 from January 2020 to January 2022, despite a surge in respiratory infections and deaths, and a lack of publicly available information. Consequently, many ailing people did not seek care. What were the specifics of the awareness campaign about the virus and how to prevent it? Were there statistics about COVID-19 related deaths? What were the concrete outcomes of vaccination campaigns and how were results tracked?
A Committee Expert asked the delegation to address a lack of women represented in Government and the proliferation of stereotypes. Women had reportedly been banned from driving cars without legal justification. What political and judicial means were implemented to enforce the gender equality enshrined in the Constitution? What were the results of the survey conducted with the United Nations Population Fund on gender equality? An increase of attacks against women in the State party was concerning. What response measures were in place? How would follow-up to plans of action for gender quality and human rights be implemented? What improvements had been made since 2021? Why was a law to punish violence against women scrapped? During the COVID-19 pandemic, 12 per cent of women aged 15 to 59 were victims of physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner or spouse. How did the State deal with these forms of violence? Disaggregated information on victims of domestic violence and perpetrators was requested. Were there any programmes to prevent domestic violence?
A Committee Expert said a 2011 act on the use of firearms made it appear that law enforcement officials could use of firearms at their discretion. How was this in line with the 1990 Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials? Were the principles considered while writing the act? Was there an independent mechanism to report and investigate victims of excessive use of force? What training was provided for law enforcement officials? While the State party reported having not received any reports of enforced disappearances, the Committee had received over 100 reports of disappearances of political and religious leaders, among others. Information was not available on whether these disappeared persons were alive or dead. Were there plans to address this?
Had the reform of criminal court outlawed the use of torture in line with the Convention? The report was vague on how visits to prisons and surveillance equipment installed in prisons prevented torture. Could the delegation address this? Reports of torture, inhumane treatment and death in pretrial tension in particular in Owadan-depe and in a women’s prison in attempts to extract a confession were concerning. What measures were taken to prohibit torture to force confession and ensure that forced confessions were not recognised in court proceedings? In 2018, the Committee found that the State party was responsible for the death in custody of Ogulsapar Muradova, in violation of articles 6 and 7 of the Covenant. Why had the State party not taken any action on the Views adopted and could it provide a clear timeline to fulfils its obligations based on the Committee’s Views?
A Committee Expert asked if the United Nations website was accessible by those living in Turkmenistan? Was the webcast of the current meeting available?
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation said legislative efforts had been made to ensure civil and political rights and strengthen democratic principles. National legislation incorporated elements of international law. During the reporting period, the State had adopted several acts to bring legislation in line with its international obligations. As of 2010, the Ombudsperson held office. Following an assessment of the Ombudsperson in 2022, recommendations were received for the Office and in 2023 Turkmenistan would seek accreditation for the Ombudsperson. Efforts were underway to bring the Ombudsperson in line with the Paris Principles. The Government was also considering the creation of regional Ombudsperson offices. Over 500 complaints had been received. In 2022, funding for the Office had been doubled. The Ombudsperson investigated violations of human rights and freedoms and made recommendations. In 2022, three such recommendations were made, which would be adopted by the cabinet and disseminated throughout the provinces. Accessibility to the Ombudsperson was not an issue. The Ombudsperson’s website, available in English, Turkmen and Russian, was a way to access United Nations documents. The current webcast was accessible to all citizens of the country.
The criminal code had been amended to outlaw torture. The newly adopted criminal code introduced a penalty for violating freedoms of citizens and gender equality. Further amendments would further advance the cause of gender equality. National legislation and norms were explained to citizens. Last year, educational seminars were conducted that informed citizens of their civil and political rights. Resource centres as well as an education plan had been set up to enhance awareness of human rights. Work was underway on extremism and non-discrimination legislation also.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, all necessary protections were implemented for citizens and foreigners in the country. Restrictions were in line with United Nations standards. Information was freely available and the Ministry of Health had developed prophylactic recommendations in line with those of the World Health Organization. A consultative centre received requests to search for relatives who were abroad. Over 1,000 citizens had left the country during the period in connection with citizens abroad, aided by the consultative centre. During the 2020-2022 period, according to presidential decree, entry and exit to and from Turkmenistan by citizens were permitted and there were multiple such exits. Diplomatic missions aided 50,000 citizens by providing passports. A multi-stakeholder pandemic response plan that included investments of over 20 million United States dollars to test, treat, and build skills for medical workers had been agreed on. 50 million doses of eight different vaccines were provided to Turkmenistan wherein the government bought seven million and the rest were provided by the Russian Federation and China. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were also provided. The first dose had been received by 99 per cent of the population, the second 97 per cent.
Turkmenistan did not refuse representatives of special working groups. Their requests were carefully considered. Turkmenistan had held online meetings with the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances in July 2020. The Government had considered allowing a visit, but the visit had to be postponed due to the pandemic. Turkmenistan would be in touch with other Special Rapporteurs on whether a visit was possible. The country was in dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on cultural rights and would continue to cooperate with the special procedure mandate holders of the United Nations.
Gender equality was reflected in in all national programmes for social and economic development. Out of 150 parliament officials in the Government, 24 were women. Women were also present in provincial governments and were represented in the media. 48 per cent of judicial workers were women. Restrictions for women to take up dangerous occupations had been lifted. Further, there were labour laws protecting pregnant women and women with children up to three years of age.
The Criminal Code had been amended to punish forced abortion and sexual advances at work. A survey had been carried out to assess conditions which gave rise to violence against women and how to prevent it. Confidentiality was guaranteed during all interviews. Recommendations were developed based on the survey’s results. The survey had found that 12 per cent of women aged 15 to 59 who were married or in a relationship experienced violence at least once in their lifetime. The prevalence of physical violence was 11 per cent and sexual violence was 2.7 per cent. The results of the survey and analysis were published and disseminated to the media and government officials. The new gender equality strategy would focus on combatting violence against women. A coordinated system of services would be implemented and legislation would be adopted. A roadmap has been developed with the United Nations Population Fund to also include men and boys. A law was adopted in 2021 to support vulnerable populations such as women and persons with disabilities.
Turkmenistan had adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Together with the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations Population Fund, the country regularly held events on how national legislation and international instruments were relevant. Results were positive. Extensive awareness raising campaigns with these organisations were also held.
The Ombudsperson’s activities could not be restricted and they had the right to visit any prison, pretrial detention centre, or facility without restriction. The pandemic made visits difficult. Information received from road police suggested that there had been an increased presence of female drivers without permits. The Government had acted to stop such drivers. All drivers needed a passport and necessary documents. All women who had been stopped to ensure the status of their documentation had been released afterward.
Ogulsapar Muradova had committed suicide in prison. No criminal charges were brought against her. Her family was notified and the staff was disciplined. Another inmate who died in a detention centre was very ill when he entered custody. He was given medical care but had stage four liver cancer.
Turkmenistan had acceded to the Convention on Corruption. All State bodies had to respect it. State officials were prohibited from taking part in activities outside of teaching or creative hobbies. A financial monitoring program identified money laundering and its connections with financing terrorism. Awareness raising among the public to combat corruption was underway. Presidential decrees countered corruption as well. A group was established to help the financial monitoring program. Officials in all agencies were responsible for fighting corruption. There was awareness raising work to identify and prevent corruption. More than 700 sessions and several decrees were adopted to address root causes and prevent new violations. There had been a two-fold reduction in the number of guilty verdicts.
No one could be denied the right to life under the Constitution. The 2011 law dealing with the use of force established that force should only be used as a last resort. It was not to be used against women or persons with disabilities except in the case of armed attacks, armed resistance or group attacks endangering the lives of persons. All illegal weapons possession was criminalized. All related deaths were recorded in a registry and the prosecutor could decide to open cases on such deaths.
Follow-Up Questions by Committee Experts
A Committee Expert said that the continued cooperation with the special procedures mandate holders was encouraging. A blanket invitation was advised instead of a long discussion on dates. No direct answers had been provided on convictions for Islamic extremism or of those who had criticized the Government.
Another Committee Expert asked the delegation about homophobic and transphobic acts and proposed that the delegation allow the Special Rapporteur on gender identity to visit. Was there more information about the Commission on Corruption? How had the rules on entrepreneurship been amended to ensure that public contracts and tenders were not granted to family members and those close to the President?
A Committee Expert said that the Committee had become aware that many non-governmental organizations were not independent. Human rights non-governmental organizations were virtually non-existent within the State party. Was violence against women still persistent or had it decreased?
A Committee Expert informed the delegation that the Committee had made a decision on Ms. Muradova’s case. The claim that she committed suicide was not based on reliable evidence, according to an independent inquiry. The decision made found that the State party was in violation of the Covenant and had tortured her. Had “necessity” been removed as grounds for torture in recent legislative reform? Was the internal agencies act of 2012 in line with the principles of the Covenant?
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation did not agree on the Committee’s assessments of the absence of non-governmental organisations in the country. The types of these organisations varied from sports-related, artistic and others. Public organisations were set up and operated with principles of independence. They set their own goals and their methods of operations. For example, the State closely cooperated with voluntary organisations to implement national policies for human rights, including plans to protect the interests of children, eliminate statelessness and promote gender equality. The State did all it could to cooperate with non-governmental organisations.
The Ministry of Justice had not received any application to register an organisation for the protection of human rights, but if it were to receive one, it would consider it within the limits of existing legislations. Did the Committee have specific information about the supposed rejections of these applications?
The claims about corruption and its use against political opponents had no basis. The interdepartmental commission for counteracting corruption was set up by presidential decree in 2022 to implement the plan to combat corruption. The committee was made up of members of law enforcement and Government bodies who were active in supressing corruption. It was independently managed and its charter had been adopted by the President. Local governing bodies were also required to participate. The public was informed regarding trials involving corruption. The presumption of innocence was respected and property was only seized following a verdict.
Prison visits could not be conducted unannounced by the Ombudsperson. The State was not at fault for Ms. Murodova’s death. An independent State commission was set up to investigate her death. A statement was released by a group of prominent Western States recognising that her death was not suspicious. The State did not recognise the need to investigate further. the Ministry of Internal Affairs had set up surveillance cameras in prisons to monitor the security of inmates. The Ministry also ensured that pretrial detention centres were equipped with audio-visual recording equipment.
The Committee’s suggestion about the Special Rapporteur would be considered. Turkmenistan did not have any restriction on Special Rapporteurs’ visits but they had to be in line with the country’s capacities. Complaints were considered as they were received and the Government could not refuse a petition once it was filed.
Civil society organisations voluntarily participated in the implementation of the human rights plan. Applications for rights defending organisations were considered but artificial organisations were not permitted. It was too early to address the roadmap on domestic violence. There had been progress, however. The roadmap guided monitoring of the implementation of the State’s measures. A great deal of work was needed to assess implementation fully, with the participation of civil society organisations. It was too early for empirical data.
Questions by Committee Experts
A Committee Expert expressed appreciation for the delegation’s responses that touched on civil and political rights. A campaign called “Prove they are alive” was in place to identify persons who were incommunicado following forced disappearances. Was there information on the 72 victims who were still incommunicado, according to the campaign? When did detainees receive legal assistance? The Ombudswoman had a mandate to monitor prisons. She had only carried out three visits and one of them was to a juvenile detention centre. What specific steps were taken to ensure that the Ombudswoman was fulfilling her obligations to safeguard detainee’s rights?
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had decided that 18 persons affiliated with the Gülen movement had been arbitrarily detained and imprisoned after closed trials. How and when would the State party release these individuals and how would they be compensated? This was the decision of the Working Group. How and when was a lawyer provided to detainees? What complaints procedures existed for detained persons who were denied confidential access to a lawyer? Detained persons reportedly lacked access to communication with their families. What practical measures were in place to ensure communication and a timely appearance before a judge between detention and trial? What oversight had been established to protect complaint mechanisms? How many complaints had been received since 2017 from individuals regarding the inability to contact and communicate with families? What progress had been made to provide oversight to avoid arbitrary arrest?
The President maintained authority to dismiss judges without review. The commitment the policy framework review of 2017 to revise the administration of justice and judicial independence was encouraging. What safeguard were in place to ensure that judicial officers were free from political interference? What mechanisms were in place to file a complaint? Resources were available that equipped judges to address human rights issues in courts and outlined the international human rights standards to which judges were expected to adhere. What trainings were implemented for judges in Turkmenistan? Closed and politically motivated trials were still of concern. A man was sentences to six years imprisonment after getting into a fight with another man who was attacking him. Reports showed that this man was targeted for political connections to a group critical of the Government abroad. Why was his trial closed? Why had his family not received any communications regarding his whereabouts during the trial? Were court decisions always made publicly available and where could they be found? Reports of defendants left without legal representation after lawyers refused to represent them for fear of reprisals was concerning. There was a surprisingly low number of lawyers in Turkmenistan. How many applications for legal aid had been received and how many were approved? Was legal aid accessible?
A 2014 act provided a commission with sweeping powers to approve, deny and regulate associations. How many applications for groups of Jehovah's Witnesses had been registered, approved or denied? No independent non-governmental organisations were able to address human rights. Would the act be reviewed to ensure that civil society could truly operate independently? Were there any truly independent non-governmental organisations registered and operating? Would international non-governmental organisations be allowed to visit Turkmenistan? Reports had been received of foreign nationals and nationals being monitored extra-territorially. How many citizens had been extradited to Turkmenistan since 2013? Had there been investigations into extra-territorial harassment cases?
Another Expert asked the delegation to describe monitoring mechanisms used for conditions of imprisonment regarding adequate space. There had been reports of poor conditions and a lack of clean water, particularly in Owadan-depe prison. Were representatives of civil society or non-governmental organisations allowed to conduct visits and under what circumstances? Could detainees be interviewed to lodge complaints? Extreme corruption within prisons led to a lack of food, malnutrition, undelivered packages from families and even theft. Some families were reportedly required to pay bribes to exercise their rights to visitation. Could the delegation address this? What steps were taken to ensure compatibility of treatment of prisoners with international standards? Why was the International Committee of the Red Cross denied access to prisons? Reports had been received about tuberculosis and COVID-19 spreading in many prisons. Delays in care led to many deaths. There were arbitrary restrictions imposed on prisoners’ communication during the pandemic. How would these restrictions be brought in line with international standards?
There were reports that conscientious objectors to military consignment were punished by imprisonment, a fine, a salary reduction or detention in a work camp. How many persons had been punished since 2017 on these grounds? What alternatives were available for those who objected to fulfilling their duty?
2.3 billion United States dollars had been awarded to a friend of a President to build a motorway, and other reports of corruption had been received. What further details could be provided about the commission against corruption?
Since 2018, the Special Rapporteur on modern forms of slavery had issues a formal request to visit Turkmenistan which had gone unanswered. In previous concluding observations, the Committee had expressed concerns over forced labour, especially in the cotton-farming sector, especially concerning women and children, and in 2021, the Special Rapporteur had also expressed concerns over this issue. Cotton workers had to pay for their own housing, food, and transportation and were not paid or were underpaid. Was there more information available on the International Labour Organisation’s visit? How would the cotton-farming industry be reformed? What safeguard existed to address human trafficking? Mandatory registration of residence prohibited people from working in the capital. Did the State party have plans to reverse its decision on the validity of passports post-pandemic? Why did economic migrants need visas to work in Turkiye?
A Committee Expert asked the delegation to provide examples of safeguards for monitoring mechanisms. Consent was not needed to collect data on journalists and human rights defenders, who were victims of targeted surveillance. Those who had family members abroad were also targeted. Was there information available on measures taken to create conditions for media to operate free from State oppression? What measures were taken to provide citizens with access to information, including on the internet? Would the 2015 internet act be brought in line with international standards? What information was available on allegations of control and monitoring of meetings of political parties? Reprisals in the form of prison sentences for those communicating with entities such as the World Health Organization or contradicting the Government’s statements on the non-existence of COVID-19 were of concern. What was the status of these persons? How many requests of assembly were accepted or rejected since the entry into force of the 2015 law, which provided specific meeting places? Could spontaneous assemblies occur without fear of reprisals or intimidation?
Another Expert said that the 2016 freedom of religion act was appreciated. Some religious communities were unrecognised or denied organisation by the State party. Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Islamic groups had been refused the right to form organisations. What measures were in place to guarantee freedom of religion and bring the act in line with the Covenant? How was registration of religious organisation based on objective criteria? Interference, particularly of Jehovah’s Witnesses, had decreased in recent years and a number of members of that community had been released, which was encouraging. However, reports of intimidation of Jehovah’s Witnesses seemed to be increasing. How was the State responding?
The Committee noted the delegation’s report on the democratic nature of the elections. However, information received implied that the elections lacked plurality. What steps would be taken to ensure the Election Committee was truly independent? A review of election policy was a welcome development. Were specifics available on this? The ongoing review included the voting rights of prisoners. How would this review meet the standards of proportionality?
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation said legislation was being improved through political will. Further progress would be achieved through the participation of civil society. Article 21 of the Covenant would be integrated into the Constitution. Time was allotted with Government officials to discuss requests for public assemblies and results were published. No one was forced to participate in Government demonstrations.
In March, elections would take place for the parliament and local bodies. The list of candidates would be published. All candidates had equal opportunities to campaign and meet electors as well as the media. Information about those meetings would be published. 14,800 candidates were registered to the People’s Council and about 12,000 for local governments. There were three political parties, and each party had equal opportunity to promote their respective candidates. The number of candidates was a testament to the participation of civil society. 3,000 observers were registered to monitor the elections and the State party also expected United Nations officials as well as foreign media. Candidates and civilians could freely participate in elections.
The delegation had responded to the Special Rapporteur on modern forms of slavery in 2021. Those responses were available on the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights website. A visit was expected from the International Labour Organisation soon. A balanced plan was underway to regulate hiring of workers during harvest season. The country did not have a policy to compel or pressure anyone into mandatory labour during the cotton harvest or any other crop. Cutting edge technology was used to harvest cotton. Mass human resources were not necessary. In 2016, an audit took place for companies that took part in the harvest, including Ikea and Gap.
People were free to move around during the COVID-19 pandemic. Air and sea links were monitored. Treatment was offered to citizens and foreign nationals during the pandemic. Citizens abroad were helped to contact their relatives and were able to access consular services. The validity of their identity documents had been extended. Temporary passports were available to foreign nationals within the country. Several thousand passports were provided for Turkmen citizens. The internet was available to all within the country. Speed was variable, but internet subscribers and broadband access was increasing and would be available for an affordable price. Netflix and other streaming services were available. Social network usage was growing. A media centre had been set up for international journalists. Information was available to all, including the most vulnerable populations.
Allegations of reprisals or persecutions of journalists were unfounded. The Government welcomed the role that journalists play in society. Turkmenistan had both public and private media available throughout the country. The imprisoned persons of the Gülen movement were found guilty under the Criminal Code. Independent and impartial investigation took place and there were no grounds for reparation. The delegation did not have any new information on allegations of disappearances of journalists. There had been no growth in corruption in prison institutions. All or the mentioned prisoners had been accounted for. Prisons were equipped with disinfectant and other measures such as devices to reduce viral infections. Canteens and other areas were disinfected. Inmates were vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine.
Trafficking in persons was not a widespread crime in Turkmenistan. Following the adoption of the counter-trafficking act in 2016, a set of measures had been implemented to aid the victims and prosecute those who practiced human trafficking. Purchase or selling of a person was prohibited. The countertrafficking plan for 2016 was being implemented and a new one for 2022 would be also. There was also cooperation with the International Organisation for Migration.
The Bar Association ensured proper conduct. The Ashgabat Bar Association had grown in 2023. Legal assistance was provided to legal and natural persons with appropriate permits granted by the Ministry of Justice. There was no shortage of legal assistance to citizens. Twice per month, the Ministry of Justice alongside the Prosecutor General and the Supreme Court held sessions for citizens where free legal advice was available. In 2022, 875 people received advice. The Ministry of Justice had registered more than 1,000 religious organisations. More than 100 were Islamic, mostly Sunni but some Shīʿa, and 12 were Orthodox. Certain religious groups’ applications to form organisations were rejected because these organisations were not compliant with legislation. Those decisions could be appealed but not a single organisation had done so. The register of public organisations included 145 of them ranging from artistic, academic, environmental and disability.
Violation of a citizen’s rights was punishable with up to two years imprisonment. Intentionally prosecuting an innocent person and wrongful detention was also punished. A person could also refuse representation or decide to defend themselves. 29 per cent of court cases involved free legal aid. This trend was growing. Training was provided to increase the qualifications of court staff, including through international and national experts. The quality of decisions had increased correspondingly. Justice was administered in accordance with international legal standards. Obligations at the domestic level were implemented through legislation and sub-laws. Under criminal law, actions which were not recognized as crimes could not be tried. Court decisions were lawful and substantiated. 35 guilty verdicts had been handed down for dodging consignment during the reporting period. Those verdicts had fallen ten-fold. In 2022 there was only one case.
Not all complaints were received through United Nations structures. Turkmenistan was engaging in dialogue on Enforced Disappearances with several organisations. Progress had been made on dissemination of Government activities. The number of people of concern mentioned by the Committee had shrunk since the last review. If convicts had been not found guilty of a serious crime, their access to vote would be considered. After each election, recommendations from the Office for Democratic institutions and Human Rights regarding objectivity and compliance would be considered.
Freedom of religion was also on an upward trend. There were not currently registered Jehovah’s Witnesses groups but that did not mean they could not practice. Claims that non-registered religious groups could not practice were unfounded. Expression of religious beliefs was an inalienable right. Jehovah’s Witnesses could express their religious views publicly or private. Jehovah’s witnesses who objected to military service on religious grounds were offered posts in migration services. The 34 people who refused military service were pardoned. The Ministry of Defence did not put pressure on Jehovah’s Witnesses to perform military service. They were offered alternatives.
The prisoners referred to were alive and accounted for, and labelling them as disappeared was inappropriate. The Ministry of Labour’s address registration system allowed for the protection of citizens. Changing that rule was unnecessary. Those abroad could come back to Turkmenistan and renew their passports. A visa regime with Türkiye did not restrict movement but instead enhanced the safety of Turkmen citizens. The Government was now aware of who the workers were working for and under what conditions. This policy could change. The company held by the friend of the President was no longer publicly registered. Regarding the “Prove They Are Alive” list, whenever the Government engaged with the Working Group, information was provided about the individuals asked about.
Follow-Up Questions by Committee Experts
A Committee Expert said the 2015 law imposed several restrictions on the use of the internet. What were they and was there an independent mechanism to ensure that people were free to use social networks? As the State party had committed to replacing satellite dishes with cable networks, international networks and information would be greatly reduced.
Another Committee Expert commended the intention to adopt International Labour Convention 81 on labour inspections and accept a visit of the Special Rapporteur on forced labour. Could the visit take place before the next cotton harvest to ensure those harvests were not manual? Visa restrictions reintroduced by Turkmenistan made life more difficult for those who wished to migrate to Türkiye. Could the delegation address this?
An Expert asked what the requirements were for religious organisations to form, which ones were rejected and why?
Another Expert said they remained unclear on exactly how the delegation was cooperating with the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances regarding the “Prove They Are Alive” list. Why were closed trials necessary?
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation said the Ombudsperson did not visit the Odawan-depe prison. Prison visits would only be possible following the review of an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Registration of citizens was done by the Ministry of Labour, which did not restrict citizens’ freedom of movement but instead protected their labour rights. Turkish authorities had a right to issue visas according to their own rules.
HAJIYEV VEPA, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, thanked the Experts for a constructive and open debate. All unanswered questions would be answered to the extent possible under the State party’s obligations. After each dialogue with all Committees, the State party always noted positive steps forward.
TANIA MARÍA ABDO ROCHOLL, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation and civil society organisations for their presence. Experts had studied the country for a long period of time, a demonstration of their commitment to their mandate. Questions were asked about non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and of women, independence of the judiciary, enforced disappearances, freedom of expression and religion, forced labour, and the right of Special Rapporteurs to visit the country. The Committee would optimise its observations to ensure implementation of the Covenant.