It has been days since Turkmen dissident Keymir Berdiev was deported back to his native land by Swedish authorities – and still no solid information regarding his whereabouts is known. Human rights activists are worrying that their worst fears could be realised and that he, like so many others before, may have been ‘disappeared’ by the tyrannical government of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
Swedish officials had been given plenty of warning that their decision could lead to disaster. They knew of Keymir’s background: how his brother and father were involved in both the opposition movement and Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen service during the 1990s. They knew how he was active himself in dissident Turkmen politics until 2002. They knew how he had fled first to Russia and then Sweden to escape the regime of previous president Saparmurat Niyazov –commonly regarded and one of the most insane and cruel dictators that Central Asia has ever seen.
Worst of all- they knew how he absconded and lived homeless in Swedish park when his asylum request was rejected, then tried to take his own life after being arrested. Yet rather than recognise his understandable fear and re-asses his case they threw him in a secure hospital then sent him back home with the pathetic and frankly irrational claim that “there is a different government and there is no danger in deporting you to Turkmenistan."
One only needs to pick up a copy of Amnesty International’s latest report for evidence that very little has changed since Berdymukhamedov took control. Somewhat ironically, the entry on Turkmenistan opens by highlighting the threat posed to “journalists working with foreign media outlets known to publish criticism of the authorities” – the exact reason why the Berdiev family is known there. It goes on to talk about forced disappearances and rigged trials. Last month’s report from Human Rights Watch outlining the state’s “appalling record on torture and ill-treatment” further underscores the legitimacy of Keymir’s terror at his deportation- describing how “people profoundly fear talking about mistreatment they or their relatives have endured at the hands of the authorities out of fear of government retaliation” and highlighting the cases of Amangelen Shapudakov and Sazak Durdymuradov - Radio Free Europe Reporters detained in violent psychiatric institutes as punishment for their work. Ominously, though quite correctly, an entire section of the report is entitled: End of the Niyazov Era but No Transition.
As the somewhat criminal deportation has already been carried out, many advocates of freedom in Turkmenistan feel that all they can now do is watch and hope. However, individuals and governments around the world should be taking firm action – to press the Berdymukhamedov regime for evidence of Keymir’s wellbeing, to continue pressure for the release of other prisoners and to reform asylum law throughout the democratic states of Europe to ensure that no one- especially political activists- are ever again deported to face the terror they fled from. Perhaps most importantly, governments must be held accountable for such deportations: whatever happens to Keymir Berdiev now, the Swedish authorities must be made to answer for it.