July 2, 2013
The Wall Street Journal

By: Sohrab Ahmari

Another day, another American celeb shamed for entertaining a foreign dictator. This time it was the artist formerly known as Jennifer Lopez, who on Saturday performed for Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the ruler of Turkmenistan. The China National Petroleum Corp. arranged the event, which only makes sense if you remember that Turkmenistan sits on the world’s fourth largest natural-gas reserves.

The post-Soviet republic is best known for the strange and ruthless reign of Saparmurat Niyazov, Mr. Berdimuhamedow’s predecessor. During his 16 years in power Niyazov, among other things, named months of the year after members of his own family; banned lip-syncing at public concerts; decreed that TV anchors not wear make-up (“he found it difficult to distinguish between male and female presenters,” according to the Independent); and banished dogs from the capital.

Yet the J-Lo revelation is no laughing matter. Human Rights Watch has described Turkmenistan as “a country marked by extraordinary levels of repression.” The regime routinely cracks down on journalists, activists and . . . pop singers: Mr. Berdimuhamedow’s government imprisoned Turkmen singers Maksat Kakabaev (“MaRo”) and Murad Ovezov for two years beginning in 2011 after they performed on a Turkish satellite channel. Freedom Now, a U.S.-based human-rights organization which served as international pro bono counsel to the singers, believes the Western-style singers were targeted as part of a push by Mr. Berdimuhamedow’s to “refocus Turkmen youth on more patriotic music and traditional dress.” (Full disclosure: In 2011-2012 I worked for three months as an unpaid legal intern at Freedom Now, including on the singers’ case.)

J-Lo insists she was unaware of human-rights violations in Turkmenistan. She should be given the benefit of a doubt—so long as she’s willing to atone. She might start by championing the case of Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, a 52-year-old dissident arrested in 2008, tried secretly and without access to a lawyer, and detained in “a prison referred to as Gorbatiy (‘Hunchback’) because of the facility’s low ceilings,” according to Freedom Now. Or she might take up the 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses currently jailed by the regime for refusing to serve in the military despite being conscientious objectors. Or maybe she can recruit MaRo to open one of her acts?