Among the numerous violations of human rights in Turkmenistan, enforced disappearances of prisoners is the most acute. Since the early 2000s, a high number of prisoners have been kept in full isolation, without any contact with the outside world. This is a growing trend: “Prove They Are Alive!” documented 66 cases when it was launched in 2013, the number grew to 88 by September 2016, to 112 by September 2017 and 113 by February 2018. An estimated number of the disappeared is in the range between 150-200. For some of these people, detention in full isolation has lasted for almost 16 years. There are close to 30 documented cases of deaths of the disappeared, including at least six deaths in the last 20 months. The number of deaths is likely to be considerably higher. Excluding conflict-related disappearances (Chechnya, former Yugoslavia, Eastern Ukraine), this is the largest number of enforced disappearances in a country in the Eurasian space (EU, EEA, Central Europe and the former Soviet Union).
The largest group of victims (62 documented cases) are those convicted of an alleged attempt to assassinate the then President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, in November 2002. These people were quickly arrested almost immediately after a failed coup attempt without proper trials, along with family members and friends. Their trials held in late 2002 and 2003, were swift, closed and full of procedural violations. Among the most prominent members of this group are the former speaker of parliament and dean of Turkmenistan’s main law school Tagandurdy Khallyev who was sentenced to 20 years; the former ambassador to the OSCE Batyr Berdyev who received 20 years; the former head of the state television company Serdar Rakhimov who was sentenced to 25 years; and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Boris Shikhmuradov who was sentenced to 25 years and later retroactively convicted to a life sentence.
A second group (25 documented cases) includes former high-level officials charged with different economic crimes, who were perceived as “threats” due to their political influence or reputation in the society.
A third group (23 documented cases) includes people accused of Islamic extremism, sentenced to terms up to 25 years. The details of many of these sentences, including the length of the prison term, are not known.
At least three civic activists also faced this fate. Their stories highlight the extent of the paranoia of the Turkmen authorities, who have gone to extremes to silence what they perceive to be opposition—whether it be in the form of freedom of expression or a more direct civic action.
The general features of the victims of enforced disappearances are:
- Most of them held high-level positions in the government (except people in the third and the fourth groups), were prominent in national politics, and were perceived as a threat to the regime, or were relatives or close associates of such people.
- There has been no verifiable information about whereabouts and condition of these people since their arrest or trial – with a few recent exceptions when the authorities returned the bodies of deceased prisoners to their families.
- None of them has had any contact with their family, and their families have received no information about their health or whereabouts since they were imprisoned.
- None of them has been seen by legal representation, external medical experts, or international monitoring organizations, including the International Red Cross.