NEW YORK (January 4, 2018) — Last Friday, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) published a decision calling for the immediate release of 18 Turkmen individuals who were arrested for exercising their freedom of association in the fall of 2016. The opinion by UNWGAD is the final decision in an official process initiated by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) on behalf of the detainees in June, 2017. The UNWGAD decision found in favor of HRF’s legal complaint and declared the ongoing imprisonment of the 18 Turkmen to be arbitrary under international law.
“We celebrate the working group’s decision to condemn Turkmenistan’s dictatorship for the wrongful imprisonment of 18 innocent individuals because of their religious affiliation,” said HRF President Thor Halvorssen. “The decision shows the notorious dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov that if he violates the rights of the Turkmen people, there will be consequences. Beyond being ordered to free the 18, he has also been ordered to pay them compensation.”
According to HRF’s sources, 19 Turkmen individuals were held incommunicado after a series of raids and arrests in September, October, and November 2016. They were then subjected to torture; in fact, one detainee died as a result of abuse in prison, a fact that the U.N. found “seriously alarm[ing].” In a closed-door trial on February 8, 2017, the 18 remaining detainees were convicted of “incitement to religious hostility,” “participation in a criminal organization,” and “financing of criminal structures.” Nine of the victims were sentenced to 12 years in prison, while the other nine were sentenced to 25 years in prison. The court decision did not present any evidence that the 18 men committed any violent activities or were part of any criminal organization.
HRF believes that Turkmenistan’s persecution of these individuals was intended to please the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has cracked down on individuals and institutions that adhere to the teachings of the religious leader Fethullah Gülen, founder of the moderate Islamic religious movement of Hizmet and the person Turkey has accused of being behind the 2016 coup attempt in that country.
The UNWGAD’s decision came in response to HRF’s June 12, 2017 petition requesting that it launch an investigation into the imprisonment and torture of 18 Turkmen for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of association. The UNWGAD concluded that the 18 Turkmens’ deprivation of liberty was arbitrary and stated that “all 18 men had links with the Gülen movement and it does seem that the arrests and convictions were linked to this.” The working group additionally concluded that “the appropriate remedy would be to release the 18 individuals immediately and accord each one of them an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law.” It also referred the case to the Special Rapporteur on the independence of
judges and lawyers and the Special Rapporteur on torture as a result of the due process violations and torture present in the case.
“We commend the working group’s decision confirming the damning facts documented by HRF — facts which were not even denied by the government of Turkmenistan. By doing this, the UNWGAD has exposed Turkmenistan’s abusive judicial system and has shed light over the Berdymukhammedov regime’s contempt for international law,” said Javier El-Hage, HRF’s chief legal officer.
On June 12, 2017, HRF sent U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres an open letter to coincide with his first trip to Central Asia and his meeting with Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov on June 13, 2017. HRF asked the secretary-general to call on Berdymukhammedov to put an end to the torture and arbitrary imprisonment of the 18 Turkmen, and the systematic repression of individuals linked with Turkish-Turkmen educational institutions inspired by Hizmet. In October 2017, HRF followed up by submitting a brief to the U.N.’s periodic review of Turkmenistan.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.