Europe 'ignoring Turkmen human rights abuses'


By Jerome Taylor 
Published: 24 June 2006 

http://news.independent.co.uk/europe/article1096041.ece

The EU has been accused of ignoring human rights
abuses in Turkmenistan by considering a trade
agreement with the repressive former Soviet republic
despite a recent crackdown on political dissidents and
human rights activists. 

A delegation of five MEPs returned from the Turkmen
capital, Ashgabat, yesterday following a fact-finding
mission to see if the EU could breath life into a
trade agreement with Turkmenistan and tap into the
country's huge gas reserves.

Until recently Brussels has resisted an interim
agreement with President Saparmurat Niyazov's police
state amid concerns over its dismal human rights
record but in March this year the EU's foreign and
trade committee voted to consider trade talks with
Turkmenistan.

Martin Callanan, one of the five MEPs on the
fact-finding mission, yesterday accused the EU of
ignoring human rights abuses for commercial benefit.

"The EU is being completely hypocritical," he said.
"We isolate a country like Belarus, which isn't half
as repressive as Turkmenistan but the sad reality is
that Belarus doesn't have lots of gas and oil
reserves."

In the past week, Turkmen security forces have
arrested three human rights activists and four of
their relatives in what campaigners say is one of the
worst crackdowns on civil society since November 2002,
when Mr Niyazov accused dozens of Turkmen of
involvement in an assassination plot. Human rights
groups fear the prisoners are being tortured.

The latest arrests began on 16 June when security
forces detained Annakurban Amanklychev, 35, a human
rights activist and member of the Turkmenistan
Helisinki Foundation for Human Rights. No charges have
been brought against him. Witnesses reported seeing
five security agents plant a package in Mr
Amanklychev's car, raising fears that he could be
falsely accused of drug and weapons offences in order
to keep him in custody.

Over the next three days, two more human rights
activists and four family members were arrested,
including Ogulsapar Muradova, a journalist with Radio
Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

"We are profoundly concerned that those detained are
at risk of torture and ill treatment," said Holly
Cartner, the director of the Europe and Central Asia
division at Human Rights Watch. "The Turkmen
government is one of the most repressive in the world.
It's shocking that the European Union could
contemplate signing a trade agreement with a
government that is so notorious for its human rights
violations."

Since Turkmenistan became an independent republic in
1991, a bizarre personality cult has built up around
Mr Niyazov. Known to his people as Turkmenbashi
(Father of all Turkmen), the "one and eternal" leader
has a penchant for unusual edicts, such as banning
gold teeth and renaming January after his mother.

"The place is seriously sinister," said Martin
Callahan. "This guy's picture is literally everywhere.
Every billboard, even every official you meet has a
lapel with their leader's face on it." Mr Niyazov has
presided over the near collapse of a state that should
be benefiting from the world's fifth largest gas
reserves but is instead descending into economic
freefall.

In the capital, Ashgabat, oil revenue has allowed the
Niyazov regime to build splendid palaces and
self-congratulatory gold statues. Meanwhile, child
mortality rates are on a par with the poorest African
nations and women's life expectancy is the lowest in
the region.

Mr Callanan warned the EU that unless more pressure is
applied on the regime to reform its human rights
record Brussels should remain cautious of any new
trade agreement. "That would send out completely the
wrong signal," he said. 








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