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J-Lo and the dictator: An upside

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 6:47 AM EDT, Wed July 3, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Singer Jennifer Lopez draws criticism for her performance in Turkmenistan
  • John Sutter says the "Happy Birthday" concert actually was productive
  • He says Lopez inadvertently lent her celebrity to raising awareness about human rights
  • Sutter: "a diva's visit with a despot can raise more than awareness"

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- American pop star Jennifer Lopez is catching all sorts of heat after her Saturday performance of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to one of the world's most notorious dictators, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

"It was our pleasure, and we wish you the very, very happiest birthday," Lopez says in a YouTube video of the performance. Statements like that feel gross, of course, if you know that Berdymukhamedov has been accused of imprisoning political dissidents, imposing "draconian restrictions on freedom of expression and association," says Human Rights Watch, and, according to The Atlantic, ordering his goons to kill or get rid of stray cats.

"Singing happy birthday to dictators while dissidents and journalists die in their torture chambers?" human rights lawyer Ronan Farrow (son of actress Mia Farrow) wrote on Twitter. "Still Jenny from the block, @JLo?"

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

He followed-up that tweet with this orthographic quip about the pop star's visit to the former Soviet Bloc country, squished between Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

"More like Jenny from the bloc, am I right?"

The criticism is fully warranted. But there could be a positive here: When J-Lo and other celebrities stumble unknowingly (yes, apparently unknowingly: A publicist told CNN that "had there been knowledge of human right issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended." This, in the age of Google!) into human rights quagmires, a kind of awareness gets raised. J-Lo's concert in Turkmenistan may at least give the rest of us a chance to learn something about a desperate nation that never would make American headlines if not for such a celebrity appearance.

Raise your hand if you could name (much less spell the name of) Turkmenistan's president before this weekend? Considering how well-controlled the country's Internet is, I'll assume you're not from there and knew almost nothing about the place.

Now that we (J-Lo, that is) have your attention, consider these sobering facts:

• Freedom House ranks Turkmenistan as one of its "Worst of the Worst" countries. The group says Turkmenistan is "not an electoral democracy" since "none of the country's elections ... have been free or fair." Additionally: "Employment and educational opportunities for ethnic minorities are limited by the government's promotion of Turkmen national identity. Freedom of movement is restricted, with a reported blacklist preventing some individuals from leaving the country. Traditional social and religious norms, inadequate education, and poor economic conditions limit professional opportunities for women, and anecdotal reports suggest that domestic violence is common."

Human Rights Watch condemns Turkmenistan for imprisoning and silencing political opposition figures. "As a result of more than two decades of the government's practice of using imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation," the group says, "unknown numbers of individuals languish in Turkmen prisons on what appear to be politically motivated charges. During the previous (Universal Periodic Review), the government rejected an important recommendation to 'account for those prisoners whose fate is unknown.' The fate of some of several dozen prisoners convicted in relation to the November 2002 alleged assassination attempt on then-president Saparmurat Niyazov remains unknown, with their whereabouts not disclosed even to their families."

• Turkmenistan is basically North Korea plus oil, as Robert Kelly writes on the Asian Security Blog. (Hat tip to Max Fisher for spotting that. Specifically, Kelly says North Korea has been referred to as "Turkmenistan without the oil.")

• Berdymukhamedov (here's a pronunciation guide from Voice of America) hates pets as well as humans. Eurasianet quotes from a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks: "There have been reports about a recent incident in which a motorist crossed an intersection in front President Berdimuhamedov's motorcade as it moved through Ashgabat. Several high ranking police officials were fired after the incident, and the driver of the vehicle was reportedly beaten and charged with attempted assassination. In another incident, a military official was fired after a cat ran in front of the president's car as he was traveling to his dacha," or second home.

Calls and e-mails to Turkmenistan's embassy in Washington were not returned on Tuesday morning.

It would be easy to argue Lopez's performance served only to legitimize Turkmenistan's government. Or that her appearance could serve to paint the country (inaccurately) as a modern and welcoming place -- the kind of open, dance-ready society that loves freedom and rocks to "Get Right." Exactly the opposite is happening in the wake of her performance, however.

People are learning a thing or two about how desperate Turkmenistan is.

And a diva's visit with a despot can raise more than awareness. After being publicly shamed for performing on behalf of the government of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Beyoncé, Usher, Mariah Carey and Nelly Furtado announced in 2011 that they had donated or planned to donate the money they received to charity.

J-Lo should do the same, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has suggested. In effect, that would mean Turkmenistan's dictator unwillingly is funding human rights efforts. And it would be a sign J-Lo, too, learned something from this experience.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

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