Turkmenistan responding to the demands of a human rights group? Whatever next?
Last week, Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and Turkmenistan’s Independent Lawyers Association, based in Holland, published a fascinating and grim report on the state of the country’s prisons. The principal premise underlying the survey was that the Turkmenistan’s harsh judicial system is leading to overcrowding in the jails:
Due to a huge, for the size of the country, prison population, Turkmenistan’s penitentiary facilities house 3.3 times the number of inmates they are designed to accommodate. This results in the fast spread of diseases and numerous deaths in the correctional facilities.
Accordingly, the report calls for milder sentences for minor crimes and the introduction of methods such as home arrest and fines instead of prison terms.
It also draws attention once again to the authorities failure to allow access to jails by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The government has made feeble overturtes in that direction in the past, but nothing has ever come of it.
Clearly, the main reason that the Turkmens don’t want foreigners nosing about their prisons is because of what they might find in there. Tuberculosis – which is likely to become worse in the country in the absence of Medecins Sans Frontieres, who left under bad cloud last year – is rampant. If TIHR’s report is even half accurate, the conditions are nightmarish and the cruelty routine.
But perhaps even more importantly, for the highly sensitive Turkmen authorities, prisons are full of political undesirables that might be inclined to say something inappropriate.
At any rate, it would have have been legitimate to expect this report and its findings to disappear down a deep, dark hole, but the government has responded with surprising alacrity, as AP reports:
Turkmenistan’s president has ordered the country’s maximum prison sentence cut to 15 years and called for improving prison conditions, state media reported Tuesday.
The measures come as doubts grow about the authoritarian government’s commitment to democratic reforms.
President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov told a meeting of security officials Monday that the maximum sentence will be reduced from 25 years and fines will replace prison time for certain crimes, state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported.
Berdymukhamedov instructed the interior minister to study bringing prison conditions up to international standards, the paper said.
Where the authorities fall short, however, is on the issue of oversight. All Berdymukhamedov seems willing to commit to is to allow unspecified civic groups to monitor the state of jails. But given how craven and toothless those groups tend to be in Turkmenistan, there is no reason to believe that will come to anything.
Regardless of how this works out – and on the face of it, this announcement is unequivocably good news – the very fact that the government seems to have been stung into action by the report of an exiled activist group is a startling development.
Who knows that Berdymukhamedov hasn’t been surfing the net?