Introduction

This Monitor update covers developments relating to the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Turkmenistan from July to December 2022.International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have prepared this update for the CIVICUS Monitor.

An increasing number of internet sites were arbitrarily blocked in Turkmenistan, while people using internet censorship circumvention tools to access independent news, social media and other blocked sites continued to be subjected to intimidation. Meanwhile, law enforcement authorities carried out arbitrary inspections of mobile phones of citizens, including children, to establish whether they were using circumvention tools to access blocked internet sites. Additionally, the authorities announced plans to create ‘’an autonomous national digital network’’, sparking concerns of further increasing internet censorship.

Persecution of people who criticise the situation in Turkmenistan and stand up for their rights continued.

Doctor Khursanay Ismatullaeva and lawyer Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, both of whom were serving prison sentences believed to have been handed down in retaliation for the legitimate exercise of their freedoms of expression and association, were reportedly pardoned and released in December 2022. Their releases were a great relief and come after repeated calls were made by human rights groups and international experts, officials and decision-makers. However, other individuals remain behind bars in Turkmenistan on politically motivated grounds. Among them is journalist Nurgeldy Khalykov, who was arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned in 2020 after sharing a photo of a World Health Organisation (WHO) delegation visiting Turkmenistan with the independent, Netherlands-based organisation Turkmen News, with which he had clandestinely cooperated for several years. In September 2022, on the second anniversary of Khalykov’s imprisonment, nine civil society organisations (CSOs) made a renewed joint call for his release. In response to an official inquiry from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, one of the signatories of the joint CSO appeal, the WHO promised to raise the case with Turkmenistan’s government.

TIHR, IPHR and other CSOs also urged the European Union (EU) to raise the cases of victims of government persecution during its annual Human Rights Dialogue with Turkmenistan’s government on 25th November 2022. Among other cases, they drew attention to the case of Agajuma Bayramov,who was released earlier in 2022 after spending six years in prison on charges believed to have been in retaliation for interviews he gave to independent media. Following his release, Bayramov has been subjected to ongoing intimidation and harassment. In particular, he was prohibited from leaving his home village, with his internal passport (used for identification and travel purposes) having been confiscated. In a welcome development, the day before the EU’s dialogue with Turkmenistan, local authorities returned this document and allowed Bayramov to travel to relatives in the country.

Twenty-fifth November 2022, the day of the EU dialogue, marked the 20th anniversary of the alleged assassination attempt on Saparmurat Niyazov, the then President of Turkmenistan, which authorities argued was part of a planned coup attempt. The authorities used this event to justify a widescale campaign of state-orchestrated repression, in which dozens of people were imprisoned following grossly unfair trials Many of those imprisoned disappeared within the country’s prison system, with their whereabouts often remaining unknown to date. In the years since, the practice of enforced disappearances has continued, especially in cases of individuals believed to have been convicted on politically motivated grounds.

In addition to suppressing dissent at home, the Turkmenistani authorities continued to target activists abroad, who openly criticise the government. In Turkey, activists were subjected to intimidation and harassment, including through relatives in Turkmenistan. In a shocking incident, unknown, masked perpetrators physically assaulted a group of activists attempting to hand over a letter to the Turkmenistan’s President Serdar Berdymukhamedov at Turkmenistan’s consulate in Istanbul in August 2022. Turkmenistani activists living in Turkey remained at risk of being detained and deported to Turkmenistan, as illustrated by the case of government-critical blogger Nurberdy Bazarov who was rounded up by Turkish police in October 2022 and placed in a deportation centre, where he was held for 10 days before being released.

The Turkmenistani authorities continued to forcibly mobilise state employees and other citizens for state-organised celebrations, threatening them with dismissal and other repercussions if they failed to comply. Those mobilised for state-organised mass events are often required to participate in time-consuming rehearsals and to contribute funds for these events.

General developments

EU Human Rights Dialogue with Turkmenistan

On 25th November 2022, the EU held its annual Human Rights Dialogue with Turkmenistan in Ashgabat. According to a press release issued after the dialogue, the EU expressed concerns about the situation of civil society, restrictions on the freedoms of expression, association and assembly, the use of torture and enforced disappearances, and gender equality in the country, among other issues. The EU called on Turkmenistan to cooperate with UN human rights monitoring bodies and special procedures. The EU further stressed that “progress in the field of human rights and democratisation is a prerequisite for the ratification of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement by the European Parliament.” In a resolution adopted in 2019, the European Parliament withheld its approval of this agreement until the Turkmenistani authorities made sustainable progress on a set of human rights benchmarks, which include benchmarks to ensure unhindered access to alternative sources of information, end the persecution of independent journalists and activists based in the country and abroad, and remove restrictions on the registration and functioning of civil society organisations. Turkmenistan is the only Central Asian country with which the EU does not currently have a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

Ahead of the EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue, IPHR and TIHR prepared a briefing paper on key human rights concerns, including individual cases, which they urged the EU to raise with the Turkmenistani authorities.

Expression

As documented on the Monitor on numerous occasions, internet access is slow, expensive and heavily restricted in Turkmenistan. Recent reports indicate further increasing internet censorship.

In August 2022, the Prague-based Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Azatlyk, reported what appeared to be deliberate efforts by authorities to further reduce the speed of internet connections. In particular, according to the service, this resulted in disruptions to the popular IMO messenger application, which has been widely used for communication between Turkmenistani migrants living abroad and their relatives in the country. Later, IMO became available again but only worked to a limited extent, with video chats rarely being possible unlike before.

Internet connections were already previously slow in Turkmenistan. In a recent global survey on internet broadband speed, Turkmenistan ranked last out of 220 countries. In addition, many websites have been arbitrarily blocked and major social media and messenger platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram are inaccessible in the country.

In early October 2022, the Netherlands-based Turkmen News reported that some 1,2 billion IP-addresses, or one third of all existing IP-addresses, had been blocked in Turkmenistan. Later the organisation reported that the number of blocked IP-addresses had further increased to 2,5 billion.

Blocked online sources are only accessible in the country with the help of internet circumvention tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs). However, the authorities have stepped up their campaign against VPNs, including by systematically blocking such tools and intimidating those who provide VPN installation services and those who use VPNs to access blocked sites containing alternative information about the situation in the country. As part of these efforts, law enforcement authorities have carried out arbitrary controls of mobile phones of citizens. During the reporting period, reports were received from several regions in Turkmenistan of police confiscating and searching the mobile phones of school children with the aim of checking whether they had installed VPN applications and whether these were used to access independent news outlets and other blocked sites. Parents of school children were summoned by police for questioning and were scolded for displaying an ‘’irresponsible attitude’’ to the upbringing of their children in cases where VPN applications were found on their children’s phones.

As reported by state media, in September 2022, Turkmenistan’s foreign minister proposed the creation of ‘’an autonomous national digital network’’, raising concerns that the authorities might seek to introduce a national state-controlled intranet disconnected from the global internet. In a further development, in December 2022, Turkmenistan's state media reported that the president had signed a decree establishing a working commission to develop a ‘’Concept for the formation of a national digital network, not linked to the internet’’.No details about the planned new network were made public.

Association 

The Turkmenistani authorities continued to persecute people who criticise the situation in the country, stand up for their rights or engage with like-minded people, targeting people both in and outside the country.

Politically motivated imprisonment

In December 2022, two victims of this practice – doctor Khursanai Ismatullaeva and lawyer Pygambergeldy Allaberdyevwere released.

According to information from Turkmen News and the Turkmen service of RFE/RL, Ismatullaeva was released after being included among those pardoned by the president on the occasion of Neutrality Day, which was marked on 12th December 2022. Ismatullaeva was arbitrarily detained in July 2021 and subsequently sentenced to nine years in prison after turning to exile-based human rights groups for help in her struggle for justice over her unfair dismissal from a perinatal clinic. Human rights groups and members of the European Parliament have repeatedly called for her release, including through a joint statement issued on the first anniversary of her arrest in July 2022.

According to Turkmenistan’s Helsinki Foundation, Allaberdyev was also released in December 2022. The details of his release are not known, but it is believed that he also benefited from the presidential pardon on the occasion of Neutrality Day, under which more than 300 people were released in total. Earlier in 2022 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had deemed Allaberdyev’s detention to be in violation of international standards and called for his release – a call also previously made by human rights groups. Allaberdyev was sentenced to six years in prison in 2020 on charges believed to have been initiated in retaliation for his alleged links to members of the anti-government protest movement abroad.

While it was a great relief that Khursanai Ismatullaeva and Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev were released, there are serious concerns about others who remain behind bars on charges considered politically motivated. Among them is Nurgeldy Khalykov, who is serving a four-year prison sentence on fraud charges believed to have been handed down in retaliation for his contacts and collaboration with the independent Netherlands-based media and human rights organisation Turkmen News. Khalykov was detained and charged after he sent Turkmen News a photo of the members of a WHO delegation, who visited Turkmenistan in July 2020 to investigate the COVID-19 situation in the country. Prior to this arrest, Khalykov had cooperated clandestinely with Turkmen News for several years, contributing information on various issues.

On the second anniversary of Khalykov’s imprisonment in September 2022, nine human rights NGOs issued a joint statement, calling on the Turkmenistani authorities to release him without delay and to vacate his unjust conviction. One of the signatories of this statement, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, also sent a letter to the WHO, inquiring what actions the WHO has taken with respect to Khalykov’s case.

In November 2022, the WHO informed the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that although it does not usually engage with cases of third parties related to its member states, it had requested the head of the UN representation in Turkmenistan to raise this case with the Turkmenistani government given the concerns raised. Turkmen News and other CSOs also urged the EU to raise Khalykov’s case during its annual Human Rights Dialogue with Turkmenistan in November 2022.

In our previous update we covered the case of Agajuma Bayramov an elderly resident from Mary region, who was released in spring 2022 after spending six years in prison on charges believed to have been fabricated in retaliation for his exercise of the freedom of expression. He was prosecuted after he first submitted numerous appeals to authorities, and later gave several interviews to the Prague-based Turkmen Service of RFE/RL on issues such as unemployment, corrupt practices in education and issues with transportation. Following his release, he has continued to be subjected to intimidation and harassment, including by being prohibited from leaving his home village, being required to regularly report to police and being held under surveillance by police. Since his release, he has been detained by police and sent back home on several occasions when attempting to travel to Ashgabat to visit his sons and their families. Bayramov’s relatives have also been subjected to intimidation, with security service officers demanding that they refrain from communicating with him.

In a welcome development, TIHR’s sources learned that Bayramov’s internal passport (used for identification and travel purposes), which had been arbitrarily confiscated, was returned to him on 24th November 2022, the day before the EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue took place in Ashgabat (see more above). Bayramov was subsequently able to travel to Tagtabazar to visit his relatives. However, according to TIHR’s sources, intimidation of Bayramov was later renewed.

Activists targeted in Turkey

The Turkmenistani authorities have also sought the detention and return of outspoken activists based abroad. These individuals would be at a serious risk of politically motivated arrests, prosecution and torture were they to be deported to Turkmenistan. According to media reports, on 29th October 2022, police in Istanbul, Turkey, detained Turkmenistani blogger Nurberdy Bazarov and subsequently placed him in a deportation centre. Bazarov’s fellow activists believe that he was targeted at the request of Turkmenistani authorities because of his criticism on social media of Turkmenistan’s leadership. After spending 10 days in detention, Bazarov was released on 8th November 2022. In an interview with the Turkmen service of RFE/RL, he said he was released following another round of interrogation, during which he told the interrogators that he feared for his life if he was sent back to Turkmenistan.

In several previous cases, Turkmenistani activists arrested in Turkey were also released, typically following the interventions of lawyers and human rights groups. However, the threat of detention and deportation still looms over outspoken activists in Turkey.

Additionally, Turkmenistani activists based in Turkey were physically assaulted during the period covered by this update. On 16th August 2022, five Turkmenistani activists, accompanied by Turkish lawyers and human rights defenders, arrived at Turkmenistan’s consulate in Istanbul to submit a letter to President Serdar Berdymukhamedov about difficulties faced by Turkmenistani citizens living abroad, including difficulties related to the renewal of their passports at the country’s diplomatic representations. As reported by the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the activists were let into the consulate’s premises but were physically attacked and beaten by a group of unknown perpetrators wearing masks when they tried to hand over their letter to consulate representatives. As a result, several of the activists were injured, including Atamurat Saparov who sustained a head injury. Moreover, Saparov and his fellow activist Dursoltan Taganova, together with a Turkish activist, were detained by Turkish police based on a complaint filed by the consulate alleging that they posed a threat. The three activists were released several hours later. A complaint was filed with local police about the incident. At the time of writing, the investigation was still ongoing.

In a potentially related development, on 15th October 2022, Shamil Kurbandurdiev, the son of one of the activists who were physically assaulted outside the consulate in August 2022, was assaulted by several unidentified men who said they had been hired for this purpose. Prior to the assault, Kurbandurdiev had repeatedly and unsuccessfully applied for a new passport at the Turkmenistani consulate in Istanbul.

Turkmenistani authorities continued to intimidate the relatives of activists based abroad. In November 2022, the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights reported about several cases in which authorities singled out relatives of foreign-based outspoken activists for questioning, arbitrary detention and intimidation. They were threatened with serious repercussions unless the activists stop speaking out about the situation in Turkmenistan.

20 years since start of mass repression and systematic use of enforced disappearances

The 25th November 2022 marked 20 years since the alleged assassination attempt on Turkmenistan’s then president, Saparmurat Niyazov. The November 2002 events, the details of which remain murky to date, were followed by a campaign of state-organised repression in which dozens of people were detained, tortured, ill-treated and convicted following show trials because of their alleged complicity in the assassination attempt. As pointed out by an expert of the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), who was appointed to look into the events, the authorities practised ‘’collective punishment’’, not only prosecuting those accused of being directly involved in the alleged assassination attempt and coup attempt, but also their relatives, as well as other opponents of the regime. Many of those who were imprisoned at this time subsequently disappeared in prison, with their fate often remaining unknown to date.

In a statement issued in November 2022, the Prove They Are Alive! CSO campaign called for renewed efforts by OSCE states to pressure the government of Turkmenistan to eradicate enforced disappearances and restore justice to the families and victims of this practice. The campaign has documented 61 cases of enforced disappearances of persons accused of involvement in the alleged assassination attempt, as well as over 100 other cases of enforced disappearances following these events, as the authorities have continued to use this practice against people who are inconvenient to the regime.

Peaceful Assembly

The practice of forced mobilisation of state employees, students and other citizens for state-organised mass events has continued under the new president, Serdar Berdymukhamedov. In addition to being forced to participate in these events, those mobilised are also required to attend time-consuming rehearsals under the threat of dismissal, loss of benefits and other repercussions, in violation of their right to voluntary participation in assemblies. State employees are also often made to make financial contributions from their salaries toward the costs of these mass state events. Some examples of this practice:

  • TIHR learned that employees of state and public institutions were mobilised to take part in daily marching repetitions at Dagdan stadium in Ashgabat several weeks prior to the Independence Day celebrations, marked on 27th September 2022. State and public employees in different parts of the country were also required to make contributions to cover the costs related to the preparation of the Independence Day celebrations.
  • According to Radio Azatlyk, on 12th October 2022 around 500 state employees, representatives of public institutions and students were forced to participate in the opening of an international arts and crafts festival held in the city of Turkmenabat. This was the largest mass event to take place in the city in two years, following the lifting of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Those mobilised were required to wear national costumes and bring their own food.

Citizens are also regularly mobilised for so-called subbotniki, or days of free public labour. For example, in November 2022, around 2,500 state employees and students were forced to clean and tidy up public places in the city of Turkmenbashi ahead of the former president’s expected visit in November 2022. Among other requirements, they were ordered to weed and plant trees.

Ahead of the official new year celebrations in the capital Ashgabat, state companies and public institutions collected money from their employees for the decoration of the space in front of their offices. According to TIHR’s information, on average, 200 manat (11 USD at the widely used, black market rate) were collected per person.