Tuesday 2 July 2013

When J.Lo Sang for the Dictator

My Human Rights Watch colleague, Rachel Denber, and I wrote this for The Wall Street Journal, where it appeared on 2 July 2013.


Many Turkmen citizens are forbidden from doing what the pop star did after her concert: leave the country.

Celebrity and dictatorship have jumped into bed together once more, with American pop singer Jennifer Lopez singing "Happy Birthday" to Turkmenistan's authoritarian ruler this past weekend.

Outside of Central Asia, J.Lo is vastly better-known than President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. World-wide Ms. Lopez has four times as many followers on Twitter as Turkmenistan has citizens.

Yet the attention in this incident's wake should be just as much about Mr. Berdymukhamedov as it is about Ms. Lopez. We're happy, of course, to see the media quoting Human Rights Watch's evaluation of Turkmenistan as "one of the world's most repressive countries." We are as surprised as anyone that J.Lo and her entourage could declare their ignorance of Turkmenistan's appalling human-rights record.

Their supposed ignorance is especially surprising given the alarming details of the country's rule. Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries in the world. The same government that threw its arms open to Ms. Lopez and her dancers has not allowed U.N. human-rights monitors or NGOs like Human Rights Watch to visit the country for years. Rights activists have to work under the radar, because they are under constant threat of government reprisal and intimidation.

In a chilling example, Natalia Shabunts, one of the country's very few openly active human-rights defenders, last year found a severed sheep's head on her doorstep the day she gave an interview to a foreign news outlet.

The government tolerates no criticism, and in recent years has arrested journalists who have dared to try, even forcing one into a psychiatric facility. Some of those imprisoned and institutionalized are eventually released after international outcry, but even so, the government's purpose is served: establishing a clear threat to anyone who dares to be so bold in the future.

Reporters Without Borders' 2013 press-freedom index ranked Turkmenistan 177th out of 179 countries, ahead of North Korea and Eritrea. Untold numbers of critics and opponents are unlawfully languishing in prison because the government uses the criminal justice system for political retribution.

Worse still, Mr. Berdymukhamedov's government freely engages in enforced disappearances, which the International Criminal Court classifies as a crime against humanity. The country's former foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, hasn't been seen since his arrest and show trial in 2002. The government won't tell Mr. Shikhmuradov's family, or anyone else, where he is or even whether he is dead or alive.

The family of Gulgeldy Annaniazov, a political dissident, has had no information about him since 2008, when he was sentenced to 11 years in prison on trumped-up charges following a bogus trial.

Murad Ovezov and Maksat Kakabaev, two popular singers—though perhaps not as popular as J.Lo—were imprisoned in February 2011, almost certainly in retribution for their music and their involvement in a talk show aired on a Turkish satellite channel a month before their arrest. In the face of mounting international pressure, the two were released in February.

Turkmenistan's government also restricts freedom of movement for many Turkmen citizens: activists and their families, and relatives of exiled dissidents. The authorities interfere with and control the basic right to leave and return to the country through an informal and often arbitrary system of travel bans. It's not unheard of for people to be literally pulled of planes at the Ashgabat airport.

Ms. Lopez, by contrast, was able to get on a plane and leave the country following her concert. Also unlike Ms. Lopez, the victims of Mr. Berdymukhamedov's rule sadly won't get much attention once this week is over.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe J.Lo is vastly better-known than President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov because it's pretty easy to remember her name. Just a thought.


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