Turkmenistan’s Ill-Treatment of Iranians Comes to Light

Turkmenistan’s Ill-Treatment of Iranians Comes to Light
Turkmenistan’s Ill-Treatment of Iranians Comes to Light

Turkmenistan might not be popularly known to Iranians - especially those who stay far from the border, but some recent outrageous acts by this northeastern neighbor are becoming too gross to escape notice. Only days before the start of 2015, an incident was reported involving Iranian anglers who were ambushed by Turkmen marine police along the Caspian Sea which led to one of the boats being sunk at sea. The fate of the unlucky fisherman is unknown while a foreign ministry official denied that he had been killed.

The incident has prompted new investigation into the long-time mistreatment of Iranians by the Turkmen. Denying Iranian merchants permit to conduct business in Turkmenistan, the thorny process of obtaining tourist visa for Iranian nationals, the long line of transit trucks along the border due to the inefficient system ruling Turkmen’s border and Ashgabat’s negligence in the joint fight against locusts which burdens Iranian border provinces through the use of thousands of tons of pesticides to deal with the pest attacks, are but a few instances of inhospitality showed by the Turkmen government, reports the Persian-language Iran newspaper.

 Prisoners Fate

The situation is particularly dire for Iranians who are serving time in Turkmenistan’s notorious prisons. The prison terms are so draconian and the conditions so cruel that even the family of the detainees do not dare to cross the border to get a glimpse of their relatives behind bars. Instead, they refer to Iranian government offices and rely on officials to work for the release of their dear ones.

Based on testimonies, even sick prisoners are treated badly. In the most recent case, two TB patients were reported to be incarcerated notwithstanding their poor health which has left their families in constant worry over their fate. One of the children of the two inmates fears the death of his father in prison, while he waits in the queue to be granted visa to visit his father.

A truck driver who was put in jail for two years for carrying 600 kg load of iron scrap and cigarettes disclosed some aspects of mistreatment in Turkmen prisons. He said he was detained simultaneously with another foreign prisoner who was found guilty of homicide. The man recalls that while the other prisoner was freed after a short while, he had to stay in lock-up for two years and finally after being released, he found to his consternation that his truck had been confiscated and sold.

In another instance last October, an Iranian was arrested merely for owning 21 Buprenorphine painkillers and it is not still clear how many years of imprisonment are awaiting him. Another Iranian truck driver was arrested for possessing $5,000 extra cash than the Turkmen law allows. He was found guilty of the trumped up charge of money laundering, sentenced to four months in prison and subsequently had his truck auctioned by the government. The fact is stories similar to these abound.

 Legal Abyss

When border crossings increase between two neighboring countries, it is inevitable that some laws may be flouted knowingly or unknowingly by citizens from both sides. Based on international law, the offenders go on trial and if found guilty, they are either pardoned or fined. And if the perpetrated crime is serious, prison terms are given.

An Iranian official who spoke on condition of anonymity to Iran newspaper believes that Turkmenistan should remove ambiguities from its laws by ranking them according to the level of seriousness. “Offenders who smuggle tens of kilos of narcotics should no doubt receive the maximum penalty, but some of the punishment meted out is way too harsh and not proportional to the offense,” he said. Since Turkmenistan has strict laws on pharmaceutical drugs, the official advised transit drivers to study the laws of the country beforehand and avoid carrying certain medicinal drugs when travelling through Turkmenistan. He also recommended that those interested in doing business there should do so through prior arrangements with government offices in Iran.

 Special Committee

The official further suggested that a special committee be set up in Golestan Province - on the border with Turkmenistan - and find a solution to the problems. He also highlighted the media role in launching campaigns to raise awareness and prevent future instances of problems for Iranian nationals in Turkmenistan.

It is said there are close to 300 Iranians in Turkmen prisons while there are only 15 Turkmen imprisoned in Iran and the disproportional number makes it difficult for a prisoner swap. Nevertheless, a foreign ministry official recently announced that 35 Iranian prisoners were released last month in exchange for two Turkmen prisoners.  He said an agreement on Iranian and Turkmen prisoners was negotiated in his recent visit to Ashkhabad and expressed hope that it would be signed during President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the Central Asian country in the near future.

All things considered, it seems obvious that the only hope for Iranian prisoners in Turkmenistan is through diplomacy and continued negotiations. This fact is gleaned from the comments of former detainees who say whenever Iranian embassy officials visit them in prison they perceive a noticeable change in the behavior of Turkmen prison officials.