Enforced disappearance of people is the most acute human rights problem in Turkmenistan
Statement by the Prove They Are Alive! Campaign
Yazgeldy Gundogdyev, Former High Ranking Official and a Victim of Enforced Disappearance in Turkmenistan, Dies in Custody after 18 Years of Incommunicado Detention.
The Prove They Are Alive! campaign has learned from a trustworthy source that a former high-ranking Turkmen government official, Yazgeldy Gundogdyev, died in custody on December 28, 2020. Gundogdyev, 64, was former Head of the International Department of the Presidential Administration and the former Head of Administration of Dashoguz province. He passed away after almost 18 years of being held incommunicado in the Turkmen prison system. During all these years, he had no contact with the outside world, including his family, lawyers, medical care providers, or international monitors.
According to available information, Gundogdyev’s death has been confirmed by a source with law enforcement. There has been no official statement by the government of Turkmenistan about his death.
In 2003, Yazgeldy Gundogdyev was convicted of involvement in the alleged assassination attempt against then-president Saparmurad Niyazov. He was tried in a closed and politically motivated process, which did not meet standards of a fair trial, and sentenced on January 21, 2003, to 25 years of imprisonment under a strict security regime. The video of his “confession” was broadcasted on national television on December 18, 2002. There are credible reports that Gundogdyev was tortured prior to his televised “confession.”
Gundogdyev is one of the so-called “Novemberists,” a group of high-ranking political figures of Turkmenistan accused of participating in an alleged coup to overthrow Niyazov. The Prove They Are Alive! campaign has documented 60 cases of “Novemberists” who have been forcibly disappeared in the Turkmen prison system since 2002. With the passing of Gundogdyev, the number of confirmed deaths of the “Novemberists” in prison has risen to 10.
Prior to his demotion and arrest, Gundogdyev served in multiple high-ranking positions in the Soviet and later the Turkmen government. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1989-1991 he was a deputy of the Supreme Council of the USSR (the highest Soviet legislative body) and the Secretary of its Committee on Youth. In 1991, he was promoted to the position of Deputy Chairman of the Council of the Republics, one of the two chambers of the Supreme Council of the USSR. After Turkmenistan’s independence, Gundogdyev served from 1992 to 1997 as the Head of the International Department of the Presidential Administration. and the Chief Advisor to the Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers, Boris Shikhmuradov, overseeing foreign policy issues. In 1994, he was also promoted to the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. In 1997, he became the Head of Administration (hyakim) of the Dashoguz province.
On September 11, 2000, Gundogdyev was dismissed from his official position for “serious shortcomings in his work.” A few days after the failed coup attempt on November 25, 2002, he was arrested in Ashgabat and charged with involvement in the coup attempt, tried, and sentenced on January 21, 2003, to 25 years of imprisonment. According to the Prove! campaign sources, in the spring of 2007 Gundogdyev was being held in the high-security Ovadan Depe prison. In 2008, his relatives learned, through unofficial sources, that Gundogdyev was still held in a prison but did not know in which one. No information about his whereabouts had been available since then until the news about his death in custody.
According to sources, Gundogdyev died in a maximum-security prison in Tejen in the Ahal province of Turkmenistan. According to Prove They Are Alive! data, in recent years, a number of victims of enforced disappearances convicted during the Niyazov era have been held in special cells in the Tejen prison.
Enforced disappearance of people sentenced to long prison terms is the most acute human rights problem in Turkmenistan. According to the Prove They Are Alive! Campaign’s 2019 report, there are at least 121 documented cases of this heinous crime, with many more people likely to be in the same situation.
The Prove They Are Alive Campaign! is confident that the death of Gundogdyev, as well as deaths of other influential government officials who had been subjected to enforced disappearances, is a result of cruel and inhuman incommunicado detention and represents a consistent attempt by the Turkmen authorities to eliminate imprisoned former key political figures and erase any memory about them. At least 12 people from the “Prove They Are Alive!” list of the disappeared have died in custody in the last five years, according to media reports and information from relatives. Without any contact with families, lawyers, or adequate medical care, the fate of many other disappeared people remains unknown.
In another despicable violation of human rights, at least 10 individuals who disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prison system have not been freed after their prison terms ended. With the exception of Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, who served his full term in March 2019 but instead of being freed was transferred to internal exile in a remote area of the country, the families of these people have no idea where they are or what their circumstances are. Eight of the ten whose terms have expired are “Novemberists” and have been held incommunicado in prison since 2002. Their names are: Annageldy Akmuradov, Esen Buriev, Isa Garataev, Bazar Gurbanov, Konstantin Shikhmuradov (their prison terms expired before 2020), Rustem Djumaev, Saparmurat Mukhammedov, and Batyr Sardzhaev (their prison terms expired in 2020). Another of the ten, Mamour Atayev, has been imprisoned since 2004, also on charges related to the alleged coup attempt; his term expired in the fall of 2020. Prison terms of two more victims of enforced disappearances in Turkmen prisons, Orazmammet Yklymov and Ovezmurat Yazmuradov, expire in 2021.
The Prove They Are Alive! campaign urges that the government of Turkmenistan immediately stop its practice of disappearing people into its prison system. Despite numerous appeals from international organizations and highly placed foreign diplomats, the Turkmen authorities continue to deny the existence of the problem, ignoring and sabotaging international human rights standards and obligations associated with their membership in the United Nations and their participation in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. We urge the government of Turkmenistan to immediately respond to inquiries from international organizations and relatives about the fate of the victims of enforced disappearances. Most urgently, the Turkmen authorities should immediately and unconditionally release those among the disappeared whose terms have expired. We reiterate our demand that all enforced disappearances in prisons should stop immediately and that all inmates should receive access to visits by their families, lawyers of their choice, medical assistance, and international monitors.
The campaign calls on international organizations and their member states to respond in the most serious and active way to the situation of the victims of enforced disappearances who have been kept in isolation for many years in Turkmenistan’s prisons. Otherwise, all of them can expect a tragic fate, similar to Yazgeldy Gundogdyev. Every year, every month and every week of continued incommunicado detention in the prison system of Turkmenistan represents an imminent risk to the lives of victims of enforced disappearances.
The international community should publicly express its outrage to the government of Turkmenistan and demand in the strongest terms to put an end to this gross and illegal practice.
The Prove They Are Alive! campaign stands in solidarity with, and expresses its support for, the families and loved ones of the disappeared in Turkmenistan.