Maintaining the status quo: continued oppression and injustice in Turkmenistan

This update covers developments affecting freedom of expression, association and assembly in Turkmenistan from January to March 2018. It 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.

In Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2018 survey, Turkmenistan was again included among the “worst of the worst” countries in the world with respect to political and civil freedoms. The only countries that received worse aggregate scores were Syria, South Sudan, Eritrea and North Korea. 

New law obligates media to promote government achievements

In January 2018, a new Law on TV and Radio Broadcasting was signed by the president. Article 4 of the new law sets out the basic principles of state policies in this area. While the article refers to media freedom, as well as the inadmissibility of censorship and interference into the activities of media outlets, it also states that one of the objectives of state policies is to create “a positive image of Turkmenistan” through TV and radio broadcasts and promote it in the national and global information space. This wording reflects the position that the president has previously taken, when repeatedly describing it as the obligation of national media outlets to ensure that their coverage demonstrates and popularises the achievements of the country. For example, in a speech delivered the same month as the new law was adopted, he called on media outlets to take “effective” measures to this end.

All national media outlets are controlled by the state. Media in Turkmenistan typically focus on reporting positive developments and the happiness of citizens under the current president, while refraining from covering the impact of the current economic crisis and other serious problems in the country. Even so, the president regularly criticises the work of media.

Authorities continue their campaign against satellite dishes

As previously reported, the authorities have taken arbitrary measures to dismantle private satellite dishes used by citizens to access foreign TV and radio channels, which allows them to obtain a variety of different information to that provided by government-controlled media outlets. The authorities have sought to justify this campaign by arguing that the satellite dishes spoil the appearance of residential buildings. In a new incident, local authorities in Turkmenbashi removed satellite dishes across the city ahead of a planned visit by the president in January 2018. Those affected were promised that cable TV would be installed instead, but were not told when this would happen. In other cases, when citizens have been provided with cable TV to replace satellite dishes, the package of channels has been more restricted than before.

The president calls for internet development, but restrictions remain

As covered in the previous update, in November 2017 the president ordered the relevant authorities to elaborate a programme to ensure internet access for all residents of Turkmenistan and to increase internet speed. At a government meeting in February 2018, the president again raised this issue. He said that citizens are already “well provided with internet services” but that it is necessary to “more vigorously and broadly introduce high-speed internet”.

Currently, internet speed is slow, access expensive and its use restricted. Websites featuring independent information about the situation in the country and social media sites have been blocked in the country. In order to access blocked sites, residents use Virtual Private Network (VPN) services, and TIHR has learned that the demand for such services has recently increased, although they are officially prohibited. At the same time, the national security services have stepped up their efforts to identify service centres and stores that assist customers with installing VPN services on their devices, carrying out checks and fining or even closing down those that have been found to provide such assistance. 

Peaceful Assembly

Forced mass mobilisation of citizens for government events continues

Turkmenistan’s authorities continue to forcefully mobilise residents for official events and celebrations, a violation of their right to freedom of assembly, central to which is the principle of voluntary participation.

Such mass mobilisation was also practiced during the winter months, resulting in participants spending hours outside in freezing temperatures. For example, on 7th February 2018 employees of state institutions and representatives of state cultural and art institutions were ordered to take part in outdoor opening ceremonies for several government-constructed buildings in Ashgabat in the presence of the president.

Those mobilised for participation in official events are also sometimes required to cover the costs associated with this. For example, the participants in a government-orchestrated mass biking event held in late February 2018 had to buy their own bikes. According to information from the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, all state institutions in the country were ordered to designate three to six people as participants in the bike event. In several cases, a decision was made at such institutions to collectively buy bikes for these participants, and employees agreed to chip in, fearing that they may otherwise lose their jobs. The participants in the bike event were required to use white bikes, which cost 3,000 to 4,000 manat (approximately 900 to 1,000 USD).

In another example, some of those mobilised for participation in government-organised Nowruz celebrations in Ashgabat on 21st March said that they had to pay for travel from their home regions to the capital, as well as for food, even if the government covered the costs of their accommodation. According to them, they had been promised that their expenses would later be reimbursed, and had no choice but to find money to cover them as they risked losing their jobs. Overall, some 800 people working in the areas of culture and education were mobilised from different parts of the country for the spring festival celebrations. 

Association

Arbitrary restrictions on the right to travel abroad

The authorities continue to arbitrarily restrict citizens’ right to travel abroad. Those “blacklisted” from leaving the country include former government officials who have fallen out of favour, civil society activists, journalists and religious leaders, as well as their family members but also other citizens who are denied the right to leave the country for different reasons.

According to TIHR’s information, the national carrier Turkmenistan Airlines has opened separate counters in their offices for those seeking to return their tickets after being stopped at the border and prevented from leaving the country. TIHR’s sources have reported seeing long lines at such counters.

The authorities officially deny the existence of a “blacklist” for foreign travel, and do not provide information about the criteria used for including people on it. No official figures are available as to the number of people being denied the right to exit at the border.

In addition to denying citizens the right to leave the country, authorities have also sought to restrict the time citizens can spend abroad. In March 2018, the Turkmen RFE/RL service reported that police had called parents of students enrolled at foreign universities and demanded that their children return home immediately at the end of each semester, warning that the students may otherwise face repercussions.

Pressure on believers

In February 2018, the Turkmen RFE/RL service reported intimidation and pressure targeting believers in the Dashoguz region. According to the service, national security officials summoned believers visiting local mosques and employees of state institutions known to regularly conduct Namaz prayers for questioning. Those targeted were asked about their reasons for visiting mosques and praying, as well as about whom they communicate and interact with. They were also often required to stop visiting mosques or reading prayers.

As documented by Forum 18, the rights of religious communities are seriously violated in Turkmenistan. Current restrictions include a ban on all exercise of freedom of religion and belief without state permission and state control of the activities of approved religious communities. Forum 18 has concluded that the regime imposes these restrictions as part of a policy aimed at controlling every aspect of society. 

Deaths of individuals convicted on politically-motivated grounds

As covered in previous updates, dozens of people imprisoned on politically-motivated charges have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons, with their families not having received any information about their fate or whereabouts for many years.

In two recent cases, TIHR learned about the death of former public officials who were imprisoned after falling out of favour with the government and who were among those considered disappeared in the country. At the beginning of February 2018, the former head of the investigative department of the National Security Committee, Begmurat Otuzov died in the notorious high-security Ovan Depe Prison. When his body was handed over to his relatives, it weighed only 45 kg. As highlighted in a recent report on prison conditions published by TIHR and Turkmenistan’s Independent Lawyers Association, former prisoners who have been held at Ovan Depe testified of the harsh conditions in this prison, such as prisoners being starved, denied adequate medical assistance, rarely being allowed to spend time outdoors and being deprived of all contacts with the outside world. Otuzov had been serving a 25-year prison sentence hand down in 2002. On 10th March 2018, the former head of the Central Bureau of the National Security Committee, Allamurad Allakuliev died in another prison in the Balkan region of Turkmenistan. He had been sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2002.