Introduction

This update covers developments relating to the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Turkmenistan from September 2021 to January 2022. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have prepared it as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.

During the reporting period, the Turkmenistani authorities continued to deny that the global COVID-19 pandemic had spread to the country, although independent sources reported on hospitals being overcrowded by patients with COVID-19 like symptoms. The World Health Organisation (WHO) for the first time publicly cast doubt on the government’s assertions of zero COVID-19 cases, with a high-level official from the organisation saying that this was unlikely from a scientific point of view. The Turkmenistani authorities also continued their attempts to cover up the devastating impact of the protracted economic crisis in the country, which has severely affected the largely impoverished population.

The January 2022 events in neighbouring Kazakhstan, where peaceful mass protests turned violent and resulted in a serious national crisis, prompted renewed repression in Turkmenistan. While internet access was already heavily restricted in the country, the president ordered additional measures to limit access to internet resources considered “anti-state” and the authorities reinforced their campaign against tools used to circumvent internet censorship. There were also reports of police carrying out random checks of mobile phones of people in the street and cutting short any gatherings of people, including by threatening to shoot at a group of people who had gathered to protest against drastically increasing food prices in state stores.

The crackdown on dissent continued. In a highly worrying case, a local court handed down a lengthy prison sentence to a female doctor, who was criminally prosecuted after seeking international support for her struggle to obtain justice for her unfair dismissal. In a development believed to be the result of specific requests made by authorities in Turkmenistan, several Turkmenistani activists living in Turkey were detained and faced the threat of deportation to their home country, where they would be at severe risk of imprisonment on trumped up charges, torture and other human rights violations. While no activists were deported from Turkey during the reporting period, the threat remained and activists based in Turkey were subjected to ongoing pressure. There were also new reports about intimidation of Turkmenistan-based relatives of activists living abroad, such as in the case of the elderly mother of the head of TIHR.

The personality cult surrounding President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov continued to be promoted during the reporting period, and was increasingly extended to his son, Serdar Berdymukhamedov. A series of promotions of Serdar Berdymukhamedov to various high-level state positions in recent years and widening coverage of him in state media have been interpreted by observers as preparations by his father to hand over power to him. In September 2021, Serdar Berdymukhamedov turned 40, the minimum age for presidential candidates set out by the current constitution. Less than five months later, at the beginning of February 2022, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov called early presidential elections for 12th March 2021, announcing his intention to step down after ruling the country since 2007. Soon after this Serdar Berdymukhamedov was nominated as candidate by the ruling party, with the early presidential elections constituting another non-democratic and formal exercise in Turkmenistan where no elections held have ever been free or fair. 

Expression

Continued policy of covering up crises

As part of their efforts to control the information flow in the country, the Turkmenistani authorities regularly deny and cover up developments that may reflect badly on the government.

During the period covered by this update, the authorities continued their policy of COVID-19 denial, insisting that the global pandemic has not spread to Turkmenistan, although reports from independent sources indicate that the pandemic has seriously affected the country.

In a joint letter sent to WHO Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge in September 2021, several Turkmenistani human rights NGOs based in exile expressed serious concerns about the government’s continued denial of the presence of COVID-19 in the country, despite reports of hospitals overflowing with people diagnosed with ‘’pneumonia’’ (known to be a serious complication of COVID-19). The NGOs stressed that the government’s failure to acknowledge the pandemic and provide transparent information about it has contributed to public ignorance about the threat of COVID-19 and therefore, most likely, to a higher number of people being infected. Against this background, they called on the WHO to issue an official, public appeal to the Turkmenistani government to deliver on its pledge to allow the organisation to carry out independent COVID-19 sampling and testing in the country. While the government was reported to have agreed to such an arrangement with the WHO in August 2020, it has failed to allow it to take place in practice. Prior to this, the authorities prevented a WHO delegation visiting the country in July 2020 from finding out the real state of affairs with respect to COVID-19, including by transferring patients with COVID-19 symptoms out of hospitals when the international experts were due to visit them. 

Following their July 2020 visit to Turkmenistan, the WHO delegation voiced concerns about “numerous reports of an increasing number of acute respiratory infections or pneumonia of unknown origin” and called on the authorities to “take the same measures as in those countries where the virus has begun to spread”, but stopped short of saying that COVID-19 was already present in the country. However, in November 2021, Dr Catherine Smallwood, a WHO senior emergencies officerpublicly cast doubt at Turkmenistan’s claims of zero COVID-19 cases, saying in an interview with the BBC that: "From the scientific point of view, it's unlikely that the [Corona]virus is not circulating in Turkmenistan".

Separately, the authorities have also attempted to cover up the scope and impact of the protracted economic crisis in the country which, among other impacts, has resulted in a deficit of basic food items sold at state subsidised prices and long lines outside stores stocking such items. For example, during the reporting period local authorities reportedly ordered stores to sell rationed bread early in the morning when it is still dark so that the long lines outside the stores would not be visible and -- non-systematically -- implemented schemes for delivering packages of rationed food items to the homes of residents to prevent them from lining up outside stores. Ahead of public holidays, such as Neutrality Day marked in November and the New Year holidays, the supply of basic food items reportedly improved and such products were sold at lower prices based on orders from the president. However, while state media ran stories about the ‘’abundance’’ of food products sold at ‘’affordable prices’’ thanks to the ‘’leader of the nation’’, the impact of these measures was short-lived and the previous shortage situation soon returned after the holidays.

Internet restrictions reinforced

As covered before, internet access in Turkmenistan is slow and expensive compared to global standards. For example, the site Cable.co.uk ranked Turkmenistan last in its assessment of broadband speed in 224 countries and territories across the world in the period from mid-2020 to mid-2021. Other countries at the bottom of this rating included Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan.

Internet access is also seriously restricted. Websites reporting independently about the situation in Turkmenistan, social media networks, messenger apps and other internet resources have been arbitrarily blocked in the country and are only accessible with the help of internet censorship circumvention tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). At the same time, the authorities have cracked down on the use of VPNs, systematically blocking such tools and intimidating individuals using them to access sites featuring information critical of the authorities. During the period covered by this update, there were new reports about the blocking of VPNs and about VPN users and experts installing such applications being summoned and warned by police. In the following case a group of people were reportedly prosecuted and convicted for having VPNs installed on their devices:

  • According to the Turkmen security service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a group of 20 small business owners providing photo and printing services in the Lebap region were prohibited by a court from using the internet until 2025. This decision came after police and security services raided their offices and found VPN installations on their computers, based on which they were reportedly accused of ‘’hacking’’. According to the service’s information, security services also feared that the entrepreneurs’ equipment might be used to print leaflets featuring protest messages against President Berdymukhamedov at the initiative of opposition movements based abroad.

Moreover, the January 2022 events in Kazakhstan, where peaceful mass protests for political and social change turned violent, prompted renewed efforts to control the internet in Turkmenistan. On 12th January 2022, President Berdymukhamedov ordered the Ministry of National Security (MNS) to identify and limit access to internet resources that disseminate information that is ‘’harmful to the constitutional order’’, ‘’directed against society’’, ‘’distorts reality’’ or ‘’promotes terrorism, extremism, nationalism and other illegal actions’’. Following previous measures to arbitrarily block internet resources considered to spread ‘’harmful’’ or ‘’false’’ information about the situation in Turkmenistan, intensified internet censorship was reported and the campaign against the use of VPNs to access blocked resources gained new momentum. According to information received by TIHR, the state monopoly internet provider Altyn Asyr (‘’Golden Age’’) introduced a list of internet sites that its customers were ‘’allowed’’ to visit instead of a previous list of ‘’prohibited sites’’, indicating that all internet resources not featured on the new list had been blocked. There were also reports of law-enforcement officers making unannounced visits to people whose relatives study or work abroad, warning them that their relatives should refrain from disseminating anti-government messages.

Peaceful Assembly

In addition to calling for strengthened control over the internet (see Expression), President Berdymukhamedov also ordered the MNS to intensify efforts to prevent mass riots and public security threats following the January 2022 events in Kazakhstan. Apparently fearing that anti-government protests might spread to Turkmenistan, the government instructed regional authorities to put special police forces on high alert and free up space in places of detention. Police patrols reportedly increased, with police randomly stopping people in the street to check their mobile phones and requesting even small groups of people standing and chatting to disperse. 

As covered before, public protests rarely take place in Turkmenistan because of the repressive climate, and the authorities quickly seek to quell any spontaneous expressions of discontent by groups of residents. Shortly after the January 2022 events in Kazakhstan, the following harsh response to one such spontaneous protest was reported by the Turkmen service of RFE/RL:

  • On 10th January 2022, around 200 people gathered outside the local government office in the Farap district to express their discontent with a drastic price increase (by up to eight times) on basic food staples in stores selling food at state subsidised prices in the region. According to the protesters, many local residents would not be able to afford to buy these staples due to the price increase, and they therefore called for measures to address this situation. However, local officials refused to talk to them. In addition, according to the RFE/RL’s correspondent, soon after the protesters had gathered, more than a dozen armed men wearing black masks arrived and cordoned off the government building. They were followed by local police officials who reportedly accused the people gathered there of attempting to carry out a ‘’riot’’ and warned them that they would ‘’shoot’’ them, telling them to ‘’sit at home peacefully’’ even if they were hungry. The protesters got scared and quickly dispersed. In a related development, RFE/RL reported about a police crackdown on Ashgabat residents (mostly pensioners) who had signed a petition concerning the shortage of food sold at subsidised prices in state stores in the capital. According to the service’s sources, in early January 2022, police officers visited the homes of signatories to this petition, took some of them to local police stations for interrogation, and threatened them with criminal charges.

In another incident reported by several independent outlets, a spontaneous protest related to restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (which the authorities deny) resulted in detentions:

  • On 1st November 2021, a group of merchants and shop owners gathered outside a market in the city of Turkmenabat, where clothes, household items and other products are traded, in the expectation that the market would re-open on this day after having been closed due to pandemic-related restrictions. However, contrary to what local authorities had promised, the market did not open and, after having waited outside the entrance for some eight hours, the group protested by blocking the street on which the market is located, holding hands. They were subsequently detained by police; however, there has been no further information about their fate.

During the reporting period, there were also new cases of mass mobilisation of residents for state-organised events. As covered before, in a practice that violates the right to voluntary participation in assemblies, authorities require state employees, students and other residents to take part in such events at the threat of dismissal, loss of benefits and other repercussions. Authorities have typically failed to ensure that participants in mass events comply with pandemic-related preventive measures, such as the wearing of masks and social distancing, although such measures are enforced in other contexts. Amongst others, during the reporting period, TIHR documented several cases in which people were mass mobilised for so-called subbotniki, or days of free labour to plant trees, clean outdoor areas and other tasks. 

Association

As previously covered, the Turkmenistani government has recently widened its crackdown on dissent in response to increasing criticism of the government on social media and the emergence of a protest movement abroad. As part of this crackdown, the authorities have targeted activists in- and outside the country, as well as their relatives.

Several individuals living in Turkmenistan have been imprisoned on criminal charges believed to have been initiated in retaliation for their civic engagement and for their speaking out on issues of concern to them.

  • As already reported, Ashgabat-based doctor Khursanai Ismatullaeva, who has been struggling for justice for years in relation to her unfair dismissal from a perinatal clinic, was detained on 16th July 2021, the day after her case was raised at an event organised by Members of the European Parliament to discuss the human rights situation in Central Asia. On 7th September 2021, she was convicted on charges of fraud, forgery and abusing a dependent person (under articles 228, 218 and114 of the Criminal Code) and sentenced to nine years in prison. She was accused of allegedly taking advantage of an elderly, disabled man whom she had previously cared for. However, human rights groups believe that the charges were initiated to punish her for daring to stand upfor her rights and attracting international attention to her plight.

Many activists critical of the Turkmenistani government live in Turkey, which accommodates a large community of Turkmens. Through contacts with the Turkish authorities, the Turkmenistani authorities have sought the detention of such activists and their return to Turkmenistan, where they would be at serious risk of imprisonment on politically motivated charges and of torture and ill-treatment. In autumn 2021, human rights organisations reported about the detention of several Turkmenistani activists in Turkey who faced the threat of deportation. While most of them were subsequently released following interventions by lawyers and human rights groups, at least one activist was known to remain in detention in early 2022, with others subject to ongoing pressure. In connection with these detentions, human rights organisations learned about a list of Turkmenistani activists whom the Turkmenistani authorities are believed to have handed over to Turkish authorities, demanding the activists’ detention and return. In February 2022, the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF) obtained and published a copy of this confidential, undated and unsigned document, which featured the names of 25 activists allegedly considered to threaten national security in Turkey. Among those included on the list were several activists detained in autumn 2021, including Dursoltan Taganova, a well-known activist with a broad followership on social media:

  • On 27th September 2021, Turkish police detained Taganova and placed her in a deportation centre. She was held there for two days before being released following interventions by her lawyer proving her right to legally stay in Turkey. This was the second time the activist had faced the threat of deportation from Turkey. Previously she was detained in July 2020 and held for two months pending return to Turkmenistan – formally for a migration violation but, in reality, for her involvement in the protest movement against Turkmenistan’s government. At that time, following an international campaign in her support, Taganova was eventually released and granted the right to legally stay in Turkey during the examination of her asylum application. Following her release from detention in September 2021, Taganova reported renewed pressure, saying that Turkish migration authorities had attempted to convince her to revoke her asylum application. Moreover, Turkmenistani authorities continued previous efforts to discredit and stigmatise her. For example, as reported by the Turkmen service of RFE/RL, on 9th November 2021 during a meeting organised by representatives of different authorities in Farap in the Lebap region, employees of public organisations were shown portraits of Taganova and five other activists based abroad and warned not to watch or ‘’like’’ video messages posted by them on the internet.

In another case, human rights groups reported about a physical assault on Turkmenistani activists in Istanbul:

  • According to Human Rights Centre Memorial and the THF, on 11th October 2021,unknown perpetrators attacked and injured several Turkmenistani activists as they were leaving the premises of the Oguz culture, cooperation and education association in Istanbul, including the association’s head Nurmukhamed Annaev. The activists filed a complaint with Turkish police about the attack, which was believed to have been an attempt to intimidate Annaev ahead of his participation in an event organised by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw on 14th and 15th October 2021, where he criticised the Turkmenistani government. The Turkish authorities have reportedly failed to carry out effective investigations into this and other attacks reported by Turkmenistani activists.

There were also new reports about intimidation of Turkmenistan-based relatives of activists living abroad. The elderly mother of the head of TIHR, Farid Tukhbatullin was among those subjected to intimidation:

  • On 29th November 2021, two police officers visited 80-year-old Khalida Izbastinova in her home in the city of Dashoguz and requested to take her fingerprints, referring to an alleged order to do so but without explaining the reasons. Disturbed by this incident, Izbastinova filed a written complaint about it with the local police department, inquiring about the legal basis and reasons for taking her fingerprints. On 28th December 2021, several police officers again visited Izbastinova for the apparent purpose of convincing her to drop her complaint. They claimed that her fingerprints had been taken in connection with a case in which police were working on to establish the identity of an elderly woman who had died in the street and therefore were fingerprinting all elderly, local residents. Izbastinova said that none of her elderly acquaintances had been subjected to fingerprinting and insisted that she wanted answers to the questions in the complaint she had filed. The police officers eventually left. On 13th January 2022, Izbastinova received a written response from the local police department, which simply stated that her complaint had been ‘’considered’’ and ‘’work had been carried out’’ based on it. The following day, on 14th January 2022, police visited her for the third time, with an officer requesting and writing down information about her close relatives and walking around the apartment filming it. The officer again claimed to be acting based on an order but failed to explain the reasons for the check. IPHR and TIHR believe that the police actions were aimed at intimidating Khalida Izbastinova because of her son’s human rights activities and criticism of the Turkmenistani authorities. This was not the first time that she was subjected to intimidation. In particular, in October 2017, unknown perpetrators threw stones and bricks at the windows of her apartment, resulting in several broken windowpanes, and frightening her, although fortunately she was not injured.While policeopened an investigation into the incident, to date the perpetrators have not been found or held accountable.