Turkmenistan: New Law Could Obstruct NGO Activity

20 November 2003

ANKARA , 20 November (IRIN) - International humanitarian aid activists have expressed varying views over a new law on NGO registration, which takes effect on Thursday.

"Even before the law actually entered into force, it [the Turkmen government] had already stripped one NGO, the Dashoguz Ecological Club, of its legal registration. The domestic remedies for that are virtually nil," Erika Dailey, the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan project director, told IRIN from Budapest, pointing out that this was the first such incidence, with more likely soon to follow.

The new Turkmen law on public associations, regulating the activities of all NGOs, was signed by President Saparmurat Niyazov and published on 10 November to become effective on 20 November. The new law replaces an older one, which was in force for almost 12 years.

International aid organizations operating in the country have so far reacted with caution, adopting a wait-and-see approach. Bradford Camp, a country officer for USAID, told IRIN from the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, that the justice ministry had hosted a meeting on Tuesday to brief NGO sector representatives on the new law.

"We are withholding judgment at this point, waiting to see what administrative procedures are put in place," Camp said, noting that no one had yet tested the registration process.

However, the International Center for Non-for-profit Law (ICNL), an international non-profit-making organization working to promote the development of civil society and freedom of association, said the new law represented a retrograde step in the context of civil society's legal framework in the country.

Significantly in this respect, Niyazov signed a decree on 14 October, stipulating that all NGOs receiving or having received foreign funds or grants, including humanitarian and technical assistance, must record these at the State Agency on Foreign Investment and the justice ministry.

"There are new provisions within the new law for organizations that accept foreign funding, and this foreign funding has to be coordinated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Justice," Camp explained, adding that as USAID had not yet been informed about the relevant administrative procedures, it did not know what they implied.

Counterpart Consortium in Turkmenistan, an NGO working in partnership with ICNL, also told IRIN that as the details of the registration process were not yet available, it could not evaluate the situation. Justice ministry officials reportedly said that these details were being processed and would be announced soon.

The Turkmen authorities reportedly said that whereas the old law had been adopted in 1991, a new national constitution was adopted in 1992 and a new civil code became effective in 1999. Justice ministry officials were quoted as pointing out that the new law had become necessary because the 1991 law had been found not to be in conformity with the subsequent legislation.

However, Dailey described the new law as a step towards tighter control of civil society. "It seems to be consistent with the larger policy that the government has been conducting to bring the elements of society that were not formally under government control under government control," she asserted.

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