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.Reuse content