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. For example, 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.
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.
The Son Rises In Turkmenistan https://t.co/O3JEdEPbJv— Bruce Pannier (@BrucePannier) September 20, 2021
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:
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.
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.
Turkmenistan has increased its control over the lives of its people after the recent unrest in Kazakhstan, deploying police in residential areas and randomly checking people’s phones, @RFERL’s @FarangisN reports. https://t.co/MHUN3Q5ysy— RFE/RL Pressroom (@RFERLPress) January 16, 2022
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:
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:
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.
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.
We urge the Turkmenistan authorities to ensure:— IPHR (@IPHR) November 23, 2021
👉Ismatullaeva is treated in line w/ int'l HR standards
👉She is urgently, unconditionally released
👉Those response for violating her rights are held accountable
👇Read the open letter on our websitehttps://t.co/cuS9FBg13z
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:
In another case, human rights groups reported about a physical assault on Turkmenistani activists in Istanbul:
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: