Fundamental rights remain under siege in the shadow of the economic crisis

The economic crisis worsens

Since the start of 2018, Turkmenistan has continued to experience the worst economic crisis to hit the country since its independence in 1991. People have been severely affected by widespread unemployment, price hikes on consumer goods and services, and shortages of basic foodstuffs and commodities. In an attempt to cope with the decline in its energy-dependent economy, the government has also demanded “donations” be made to state needs from state employees and others. Authorities have simultaneously attempted to deny the serious economic problems in the country. Government propaganda continues to focus on the supposed well-being and achievements of the nation, and open discussion on the challenges facing the country is suppressed through control of state media and censorship. In one example, a pro-government site claimed that store counters were “bursting with an abundance of food stuff” ahead of the New Year, although independent websites reported shortages of flour and eggs and two-fold price increases on fruits, vegetables and bakery goods. While residents continue to be forcefully mobilised for regime-praising events, such as the New Year celebration, critical voices are subjected to ongoing pressure. In this context, concessions made by local authorities in response to a spontaneous protest against price increases on public transportation in the Dashoguz region appear aimed at preventing further expressions of discontent.

The following update on the most recent developments relating to freedom of expression, assembly and association in Turkmenistan has been prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) for the CIVICUS Monitor based on TIHR’s monitoring of the situation in the country from November 2017 - January 2018.

Expression

Internet access

In late November 2017, President Berdymukhamedov ordered the relevant authorities to elaborate a programme for internet development in the country. The plan is that the state Altyn Asyr operator will ensure internet access for all residents of Turkmenistan and that internet speed will be increased up to five times in the capital (100 Gigabytes per second) and that it will be no less than four Gigabytes per second in any part of the country. Currently, internet speed is slow and access is expensive. According to the Speedtest Global Index, Turkmenistan was ranked 126th among 131 countries worldwide regarding its slow internet speed in November 2017. Customers of Altyn Asyr have also complained about frequent interruptions in internet access.

In the National Human Rights Action Plan for 2016 to 2020, the Turkmenistani authorities set out to ensure unobstructed internet access for all. However, as covered before, internet access is still limited in the country and websites featuring information displeasing to the authorities are blocked.

Dismantling of satellite dishes

In a new development in the authorities' arbitrary campaign to crack down on private satellite dishes, the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported in early December 2017 that the residents of newly-built townhouses in the Choganly district of Ashgabat had been ordered to remove their satellite dishes. According to local residents with whom RFE/RL spoke, local officials also insisted on the removal of satellite dishes in the yard so as to not “spoil” the street appearance of the houses, which is the official argument used to justify the campaign against these devices. The residents said that they had not been informed that satellite dishes and other devices installed outside their houses were not allowed when moving in. Satellite dishes are used to access foreign TV and radio channels, as an alternative to the state-controlled channels broadcasting in the country.

Intimidation and harassment of critical voices

As reported in the previous update, authorities in Turkmenistan have recently stepped up pressure on critical voices and their family members.

In December, one of the activists whose case was previously covered, as well as her daughter, were arbitrarily detained as follows:

  • On 7th December 2017, a group of unidentified individuals who presented themselves as law enforcement officials forced their way into the apartment where animal rights activist Galina Kucherenko and her daughter Valeria live in Ashgabat. They broke through the metal door and forcibly took first the mother and then the daughter with them, claiming that they were acting in response to a complaint from neighbours about the nuisance of the cats and dogs living in the apartment. When fellow civil society activist Natalia Shabunts, whom Kucherenko managed to call before she was taken away, arrived to the apartment, she found it locked up, with apparent signs that the metal door had been pried open. Toward the evening, Valeria Kucherenko was released after being held for several hours and taken to court and fined 50 manat (about 12 EUR) for allegedly resisting police. During her detention, Valeria did not see her mother and did not receive any clear information about her. Only several days later, it was discovered that Galina Kucherenko had been sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention on the basis of the alleged complaint from neighbours about the lack of sanitation in her apartment. On 12th and 18th December, the activist’s daughter was allowed to visit her and bring warm clothes, medicine and food and Galina was finally released on 22nd December. Galina Kucherenko has been involved in efforts to protect stray animals in Ashgabat for several years and has used social media to criticise local authorities for the brutal killing of strays. TIHR and IPHR as well as Human Rights Watch and other NGOs denounced the detention of the animal rights activist and her daughter. Representatives of the international community also raised concerns over her case with the Turkmenistani authorities.

In a separate incident, a RFE/RL correspondent was subjected to a new attack:

  • On 27th November 2017, a group of men, several of whom wore police uniforms, prevented RFE/RL correspondent Soltan Achilova from taking pictures of the demolition of houses in the Keshi area in Ashgabat. They forcibly confiscated her camera and took her away by car. After one of the police officers received a phone call, Achilova was released. She got her camera back, but her pictures had been erased and the camera was damaged. This was the fifth attack on Achilova to be reported in 2017. As reported, she also faced other forms of harassment and, during the Asian Games in September 2017, she temporarily left Turkmenistan due to the serious threats she had received.

No perpetrators have thus far been identified or arrested in connection with the attack on the mother of TIHR’s head, who lives in Turkmenistan. The attack was covered in the previous update and the investigation into the incident continues.   

Protest against increasing bus ticket prices

As covered before, protests against government policies are rare in Turkmenistan due to the repressive climate. However, in some cases, residents carry out spontaneous protests on socio-economic issues affecting their everyday lives. A recent example includes a protest over increasing costs for public transportation that were introduced by authorities in the context of the current economic crisis:

  • On 3rd November 2017, local residents in the Gerogly settlement in the Dashoguz region gathered outside the local administration building to express their discontent over the sharp increase in the cost of bus tickets to the region’s capital. Given the lack of employment opportunities in the settlement and nearby areas, many residents commute to the city of Dashoguz for work every day. From the beginning of November, the price for bus tickets for this trip increased by over 54 percent - from 1.10 to 1.70 manat. The local authorities responded to commuters' concerns by retracting the price hike, which suggests that they wanted to prevent further protests. In other regions, price increases for public transportation remained in place.
Mass mobilisation of residents for official events

In spite of the criticism from the international community, Turkmenistan’s authorities continue to forcefully mobilise residents en masse for official events and celebrations, a violation of their right to freedom of assembly which includes voluntary participation. A recent example of a forced mobilisation is as follows:

  • On New Year’s Eve 2017, official celebrations were organised at central squares in Ashgabat and other major cities. According to TIHR, employees of state institutions and students were required to attend these festivities in Dashoguz and other cities. Similar to other government-initiated mass events, the New Year celebrations reinforced the president’s personality cult. The state information agency Turkmenistan Today reported that the host at the Ashgabat festivities being broadcasted on TV spoke on behalf of all citizens, expressing the “people’s great love” for its leader, as well as “deep gratitude” for his “tireless work and selfless service to the Motherland”. When speaking at the event, the president himself stressed the “colossal” work done in 2017 “for the benefit of the people and the country”, and failed to remark on the current economic crisis.

In some cases, the mass mobilisation of residents by the authorities has taken the form of forced labour. For example, the Turkmen service of RFE/RL reported in December 2017 that employees of state institutions in the Dashoguz region were mobilised to take part in the behind the scenes work of filming a feature movie based on the president’s book Turkmenistan – the heart of the Great Silk Way. Those concerned were required to spend entire days putting scenery in place, removing snow or cleaning the territory where the filming took place. According to RFE/RL, they were expected to cover the costs of travel to the filming venue themselves and were threatened with sanctions, including dismissal from their jobs, if they refused to comply.