The injustice of amnesty: Turkmenistan’s Sultan-like “judicial” practice
Editor’s note: As Turkmenistan marks a national holiday, another round of amnesties for prisoners has occurred. neweurasia’s Annasoltan explores the practice, criticizing it as a sign of the pervasive injustice in Turkmenistan’s justice system: “Amnesty gives innocent prisoners a chance at freedom [but] it’s also testimony to the fact that our justice system is in total shambles,” she writes. “Not only this, but the practice of amnesty itself is unjust and cruel, because it doesn’t actually correct injustice, it just produces more of it.”
Every culture has its “life cycles”. Here’s a typical one from the West: a man falls in love with a woman, marries her and creates a family and lives happily ever after in their nice suburban house with a white picket fence. In Turkmenistan, the story goes this way: a man gets a job, and shortly after he’s accused of wrongdoing and sent to prison; if he’s lucky, he’ll receive amnesty after a few years. I’m exaggerating, of course — somewhat. Routine, even ritual amnesties of prisoners was not only an old Ottoman practice, but a contemporary Turkmen one, as well, and it’s a symptom of how our people are being strangled by Turkmenistan’s so-called “justice” system.
The practice was revived during the Niyazov era and which Berdimuhammedov has carried over. National holidays and special anniversaries are occasions when thousands of people are receive amnesty. So, this week as Turkmenistan marks a national holiday, the Day of Revival, Unity and the Poetry of Magtymguly Pyragy, the practice has happened yet again.
Conceptually, there’s real ambiguity. On the one hand, amnesty gives innocent prisoners a chance at freedom; on the other hand, it’s also testimony to the fact that our justice system is in total shambles. The practice also highlights the fact that conditions in our prisons are terrible: for example, long-term prisoners tend to develop tuberculosis. Not only this, but the practice of amnesty itself is unjust and cruel, because it doesn’t actually correct injustice, it just produces more of it. Think about it: the practice is part and parcel of the very system it’s supposed to redress. For example, while some criminals are amnestied after a short time, political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are exempt. The only reprieve is if they become terminally ill, in which case they are allowed to die at home rather than a prison cell. Very generous of the authorities.
Amnesties are often determined by, as it were, extrajudicial means — in other words, bribes. Here’s an anecdote: a young man living in a small town not far from Balkanabad, the capital of Balkan province, had a guest at his home, and as usually happens, they were drinking together. After a while the guest fell asleep, so the other man went outside to smoke a cigarette. It was past curfew, so while he was standing not far away from the door of his house, two police officers threatened to detain him. An argument soon broke out between them and the officers began beating the man, particularly on his face. They subsequently attempted to hide their action by barring the man from leaving his house. However, after a while the man’s parents managed to bring him to Balkanabad. The two officers, frightened at the possibility of being exposed for their misbehavior, arranged for a doctor friend of theirs to examine the man in secret. The friend reported back that the man was blinded in one eye, and moreover, if not treated soon, he would be blind in the other eye as well. Matters seemingly spiralled out of the officers’ hands: the man was rushed to surgery in Ashgabat while the officers were jailed. Yet, within two months one of the officers was amnestied. According to people I’ve talked to about the incident, it is believed that this officer’s family had paid a bribe. Funny how a corrective practice has actually inspired more corruption.
Here’s another anecdote also from Balkanabad: Aman was a bank official who made regular monthly business trips to Ashgabat. On one such occasion, he and some other businessmen were guests at someone’s home, enjoying alcohol and the company of women. Eventually Aman passed out. When he woke up early the next morning, he was shocked to discover a man laying next to him, dead from severe head injuries. The other men were awake and staring at Aman. He professed innocence and left for home, apparently in the belief that the group would collectively cover up what happened. A few days later, however, the police came to his home and arrested him. It turned out the murdered man was a high-ranking bank official. The other men told the court that Aman was the murderer, and he was convicted to 15 years in prison. Now five years later, he is still waiting for his amnesty.
Such are the bizarre stories that abound in my nation’s “justice system” and which surround this Sultan-like practice of amnesty. Wouldn’t we prefer a system of actual fairness and transparency? Especially when there are so many families here in which at least one member has been or is currently in prison?