Turkmenistan Faces UN Challenge over Death of Human Rights Activist

NEW YORK—Turkmenistan’s authoritarian state is being called to account before the UN Human Rights Committee over the death in police custody seven years ago of human rights activist Ogulsapar Muradova.

Muradova died on September 14, 2006, over 10 weeks after being detained by police with her brother and another activist. The authorities blamed natural causes, but members of her family said her body bore marks of violence, and international human rights organizations have continued to press for a full investigation into her death.

A mother with three children, and the sister of an exiled opposition figure, Muradova also worked as a correspondent in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat for the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty radio station. She was a critic of the repressive regime of then president Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled Turkmenistan from the collapse of the Soviet Union until his death in December, 2006.

Her brother Annadurdy Khadzhiyev, in a complaint filed on his behalf by the Open Society Justice Initiative, is now asking the UN Human Rights Committee to push for a proper investigation into his sister’s death and mistreatment.

“Turkmenistan has refused to openly investigate the events and mistreatment that led to my sister’s death, and to punish the abusers,” Khadzhiyev said. “The authorities should fully cooperate with the United Nations, and provide details about what happened to my sister. As the government continues talking about democratization, it should not be covering up the crimes of the past.”

James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said: “This case involves egregious human rights violations. Turkmenistan needs to acknowledge its responsibility for Ogulsapar Muradova’s arbitrary detention, torture and death, and provide her family with remedies, including appropriate compensation and a public apology.”

After her arrest on June 18, 2006, the Turkmen police held Muradova in custody with virtually no connection to the outside world until she appeared for her trial on August 25, 2006, on charges of possessing weapons.

During her detention, she was interrogated without a lawyer, with indications that she was subjected to physical abuse, and the forcible use of drugs, to force an admission to trumped up charges. During this period, she passed a message to her family that she “could not stand the mistreatment.”

The government first claimed that Muradova died of “natural causes.” Several years later this was changed to “suicide,” after an alleged investigation that was never made public. In addition to failing to investigate her mistreatment and death, the Turkmen authorities have refused to provide redress to her family, and have persecuted Ms. Muradova’s children when they tried to draw international attention to her case. As a result, the family could not pursue any domestic remedies. 

In the complaint to the United Nations, the Open Society Justice Initiative states that Turkmenistan is responsible for torture and arbitrary killing of Ms. Muradova, her arbitrary detention and egregious violations of her fair trial rights, including  publicly declaring her guilt before her trial and denying her prompt effective assistance of a lawyer, and closing her trial to the public.  

Muradova’s two co-defendants in the trial were released in February 2013 after serving their term.

Turkmenistan still remains closed to independent scrutiny: International human rights organizations are denied access to the country, and no independent monitors, domestic or international, have access to its detention facilities. Recently, the Committee against Torture expressed concern about the use of torture to extract confessions from detainees and forced confessions as evidence in court, and about “numerous and consistent reports on a number of deaths in custody and on the alleged restriction on independent forensic examination into the cases of such deaths.”