The EU adopts important benchmarks, as repression continues in Turkmenistan
IPHR and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights urge the #EU to insist on the implementation of human rights benchmarks by #Turkmenistan at the upcoming #HumanRightsDialogue: https://t.co/m81HJ7Cg46 pic.twitter.com/cHj7buKiCD— IPHR (@IPHR) March 27, 2019
Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive countries in the world. In the 2019 Freedom in the World report, published by Freedom House, Turkmenistan featured again as one of the worst countries with an aggregate score for political and civil liberties equal to that of Eritrea and South Sudan and with only war-torn Syria behind. In the 2019 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders, Turkmenistan ranked last, taking position 180 out of 180 countries, below North Korea and Eritrea.
During the first three months of 2019, the authorities of Turkmenistan continued their efforts to prevent citizens from seeking, receiving and imparting independent information about the situation in the country. Among others, the authorities detained people taking photos or filming in public places, blocked the use of VPN apps, typically used to access otherwise inaccessible websites, and barred people from travelling abroad to prevent them from “slandering” their home country. Among those blacklisted from leaving the country was well-known independent journalist Soltan Achilova. In a new example of internet censorship, the page of Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights was promptly deleted from a new national social media platform which was launched as an alternative to foreign social media sites that are blocked in the country. The authorities also continue to forcibly mobilise residents for state-organised mass events and stepped up efforts to prevent supposedly “excessive” expressions of religion, including by summoning, questioning and warning people actively practicing Islam and detaining and forcing young bearded men to shave.
In a positive development, the European Parliament adopted important benchmarks for human rights progress in Turkmenistan, setting these as a condition for approving the EU-Turkmenistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which has been pending ratification for more than two decades.
This report reviews the protection of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Turkmenistan from the end of December 2018 to the end of March 2019. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have prepared it for the CIVICUS Monitor.
EU action on human rights in Turkmenistan
On 12th March 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution setting out concrete human rights benchmarks as a condition for the ratification of the EU-Turkmenistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). The Parliament has withheld approval of this agreement for years because of human rights concerns. The new benchmarks include, among others, the following measures that the authorities of Turkmenistan should take: ensuring unhindered access to alternative sources of information; ending the persecution of independent journalists, civil society activists and human rights activists based in- and outside the country; guaranteeing freedom of assembly and removing restrictions on the operation of NGOs; and ending arbitrary travel bans. IPHR and TIHR welcomed the European Parliament resolution, calling it a milestone in EU-Turkmenistan relations, and urging the EU to use any occasion to push for the implementation of the benchmarks.
The two NGOs also prepared a briefing paper for the EU’s annual Human Rights Dialogue with Turkmenistan, which took place on 29th March 2019, highlighting key issues of concern. According to a press release that the EU issued, the dialogue “allowed for an open and constructive debate” on a number of human rights issues. The press release stated:
“While Turkmenistan has made efforts to bring its legislative framework in line with international standards, effective implementation of the laws remains necessary to achieve a concrete improvement of the human rights situation.”
Among others, the EU stressed the importance of protecting civil society representatives and human rights defenders from violence, harassment and reprisals and ensuring that independent media sources are free from censorship. It also raised individual cases of concern with the authorities of Turkmenistan.
Restrictions on the dissemination of information and harassment of journalists
The authorities of Turkmenistan continue to obstruct the dissemination of independent information about the situation in the country, including the current economic crisis. The Prague-based Turkmen service of RFE/RL reported that there has been a growing number of cases in which police have detained people simply for taking photos or making videos at food markets. According to the service’s local correspondents, in this way, the police are seeking to track down people who share photo and video material with RFE/RL and other foreign-based sites.
Intimidation and harassment of journalists working for RFE/RL and other foreign media outlets continue. Most recently, independent journalist Soltan Achilova, who previously worked for RFE/RL and currently cooperates with TIHR, learned that she had been blacklisted for travel abroad. On 11th March 2019, migration authorities stopped her at the passport control at Ashgabat airport as she was about to travel to Tbilisi, through Istanbul, to participate in an international seminar. A migration official told her that she is not allowed to leave the country, without providing any explanation. The International Committee for the Protection of Journalists called on the authorities of Turkmenistan to “immediately lift” the travel ban, saying that “[s]ystematic harassment of Achilova and a handful of other journalists must be stopped as they do the important job of reporting from one of the most closed-off countries of the world.” Achilova has repeatedly faced threats and harassment because of her journalist activities.
Another independent journalist who has paid a heavy price for cooperating with foreign-based news sites is Saparmed Nepeskuliev. He was released from prison in May 2018 after serving a three-year prison sentence for possessing a medical drug banned in Turkmenistan, charges believed to have been brought in retaliation for his reporting. He had to serve his entire prison sentence, although international human rights bodies had called for his release. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found his imprisonment unlawful. Nepeskuliev’s health deteriorated seriously in prison and he remained under surveillance upon release. In late March 2019, TIHR learned that he had been able to safely leave Turkmenistan to undergo treatment abroad.
Serious restrictions on internet use in Turkmenistan continue. Internet speed is slow, and prices high compared to global standards. According to the current rates of the state-owned Turkmen Telecom, which provides all internet traffic in the country, the fastest internet connection available to individual users is 2 Mbit/s at a monthly cost of 350 manat, (about 85 EUR) according to the official exchange rate. This can be compared to the officially determined monthly minimum wage which is 650 manat.
Independent sites reporting about developments in Turkmenistan such as TIHR’s site, foreign social media sites, as well as messenger apps are not available to users in Turkmenistan other than with the help of proxy servers. However, the authorities also seek to prevent the use of such servers. In January 2019, TIHR learned that mobile phone users downloading VPN apps to access otherwise blocked sites lost their internet connections altogether and had to buy new sim-cards to be able to use the internet on their phones. There have also been reports of police and security services intimidating and harassing individuals using proxy servers.
In late December 2018, a new national social media called platform “BizBärde” (“We are here”) was launched, as an alternative to popular foreign social media sites, which are blocked in the country. As other media in Turkmenistan, this new social media network is closely state-controlled. TIHR created a page on the network, only to see the whole network promptly being closed down for ”technical reasons” after which the organisation’s page disappeared from it. TIHR received a message saying that its email address had been blacklisted for use on the site.
Continued campaign against satellite dishes
The authorities continue their arbitrary campaign against privately-owned satellite dishes, which residents use to watch and listen to foreign TV and radio channels, as an alternative to national state-controlled channels. TIHR reported that some Ashgabat residents have started installing satellite dishes directly on the ground outside their apartment buildings as authorities prohibit them from mounting the dishes on the exterior of their apartment walls.
Arbitrary travel bans
The authorities continue arbitrarily restricting the right to exit/enter the country and blacklist people for travel abroad. Those blacklisted include individuals considered “disloyal” to the regime, such as former government officials who have fallen out of favour with the government, civil society activists, journalists and religious leaders, as well as their family members. As covered above, journalist Soltan Achilova was recently barred from international travel. TIHR has also recently learned about several other cases in which people have been arbitrarily denied the right to leave the country, including the following incident:
- On 3rd February 2019, police and migration service officials detained, questioned and prevented eight people from flying to Istanbul at Ashgabat airport. According to eyewitnesses, a plain clothes official believed to be from the security services suggested that the detentions were based on new guidelines aimed at preventing people who may “slander” their home country from travelling abroad. This officer did not explain, though, why he and his colleagues had singled out the affected passengers as potential “slanderers”.
Peaceful Assembly and Association
Forcible mobilisation for state events
The authorities of Turkmenistan continue to forcibly mobilise state employees, students and other residents for various state-organised mass events, at the threat of dismissal or other repercussions. This practice runs contrary to the right to freedom of assembly.
These are two recent cases of this problematic practice that TIHR has documented:
- Across the country, on 31st December 2018, those working at state institutions had to attend the official New Year’s celebrations in their respective cities, at the orders of their employers. The heads of regions spoke at these celebrations and sent their greetings to the president through a video link with the capital. At the same time, TIHR’s monitors in the city of Dashoguz reported that police cut short attempts by citizens to gather in the street to celebrate New Year, telling them to go home.
- On 26th and 27th February 2019, kindergarten and school children, students, as well as teachers and other state employees had to attend an event to celebrate the construction of three new state-owned residential houses in the Parakhat 7 district of Ashgabat. The houses are intended for officers from the army, police and prosecutor’s offices. Ashgabat’s mayor was present at the event.
Harassment of members of religious communities
As covered before the authorities of Turkmenistan seriously restrict religious activities and intimidate and harass members of religious communities. In January 2019, the Turkmen service of RFE/RL reported new cases in the Lebap and Dashoguz regions in which law enforcement authorities summoned people who attend mosques or otherwise actively practice Islam, e.g. by praying at work. According to the service, law enforcement authorities questioned those targeted about their religious practice and threatened them with repercussions for expressing “excessive religiosity.” The same month TIHR learned that police in Ashgabat had stepped up efforts to enforce an unofficial ban on wearing of beards by men below 40, a ban that is allegedly aimed at counteracting “religious extremism”. As part of this campaign, police stopped unshaved young people in the street, detained and brought them to nearby police stations, and demanded that they shave off their beards. According to TIHR’s information, police also often demanded bribes to let those detained go.
Forum 18 reported about the imprisonment of another Jehovah’s Witness for refusing to serve in the army. In January 2019, a court in the Lebap Region sentenced 18-year-old Azamatjan Narkulyev to one year in prison for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of conscience. Forum 18 noted that his conviction brought the total number of imprisoned conscientious objectors to 12, all of whom are Jehovah’s Witnesses. All of those imprisoned have expressed willingness to carry out alternative, civilian service. However, the authorities of Turkmenistan have failed to introduce such a service, despite repeated recommendations by international human rights bodies.