Government responds to COVID-19 and hurricane with denial, cover-ups and intimidation tactics

Introduction

This is an update on developments affecting the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Turkmenistan from February to May 2020. 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.

As coronavirus (COVID-19) spread across the world, the Turkmenistani government insisted that there were no registered cases of infections in the country, although independent sources reported such cases. The government was slow in facilitating a World Health Organisation (WHO) mission to investigate the COVID-19 situation in the country and sought to stifle open discussion about the virus and supposedly “prevent panic” over the pandemic.

Authorities detained and intimidated people who spoke out about COVID-19 related issues in public places and ordered the heads of medical facilities to suppress any discussion about the virus amongst their staff. They also threatened to prosecute a doctor suspected of using his cell phone to document conditions in a quarantine zone for people subjected to COVID-19 testing. The authorities also accused independent, foreign-based sources of distributing “fake news” and “slander” because of their coverage of COVID-19 and other recent developments in Turkmenistan.

Another example of the government policy of covering up crises in the country was seen in connection with a devastating hurricane which hit parts of Turkmenistan in late April 2020. State-controlled media largely ignored this natural disaster. Instead of assisting the victims, the authorities went after citizens believed to have shared photos and video clips of the havoc caused by the hurricane with relatives and others living abroad. Several dozen people were detained on these grounds and some of them faced charges for defaming and insulting authorities.

The government’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and the April hurricane were additional sources of dissatisfaction among the population, already badly affected by the protracted economic crisis in the country, as a result of worsening shortages of basic food items. While any public expression of discontent about the situation in Turkmenistan is associated with the risk of persecution, the period covered by this update saw several spontaneous protests of residents who demanded that the authorities address the problem of decreasing access to flour – a major staple – at affordable prices. Other residents turned to foreign-based dissidents with requests to help publish video appeals in which they spoke about their plight and their unhappiness with the authorities. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities continued to mobilise citizens forcibly to attend state organised celebrations.

The government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Denial and lack of transparency

The Turkmenistani government’s approach to the global COVID-19 pandemic was characterised by denial and a lack of transparency. As described in an official document submitted to the UN, the authorities took some steps to prevent the spread of the virus in the country, such as restricting travel across national borders and placing those arriving from abroad in quarantine, limiting internal migration and raising awareness of hygiene related issues among citizens. At the same time, the government continued to insist that there were no registered cases of COVID-19 infections in the country, although independent sources reported on such cases.

At a government briefing held for representatives of international organisations on 22nd April 2020, Foreign Minister Raşit Meredow dismissed allegations that the government was concealing cases of COVID-19 infections. He said that the government is “not hiding anything” and that it “immediately would inform” the WHO about any confirmed case of COVID-19. The government acknowledged the existence of quarantine zones, as reported by independent sources, and said that people who had recently returned from abroad were held there for 14 days while being tested for COVID-19. However, the government did not indicate that anyone among those subjected to quarantine had tested positive for COVID-19. On the contrary, in mid-April 2020, TIHR learned that seven people held in a quarantine area in the city of Turkmenabat had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

WHO mission delayed

In response to the government’s declarations about the absence of any COVID-19 infections in the country, the WHO announced plans to visit Turkmenistan. The initial plan was to coordinate this mission with a visit to Tajikistan, another Central Asian country that had reported zero COVID-19 infections as of late April 2020 (but soon thereafter confirmed the first cases). However, while a WHO mission arrived in Tajikistan on 1st May 2020, the WHO only confirmed having received an invitation to visit Turkmenistan on 5th May 2020, and as of mid-May the mission was still being organised.

According to TIHR’s information, the announcement of the upcoming WHO visit prompted the Turkmenistani authorities to take measures aimed at preventing the international experts from discovering the real situation in the country with respect to the coronavirus. In particular, the authorities transferred COVID-19 infected individuals from quarantine zones to hospitals located in remote areas of the country. Shortly after this, a hurricane caused extensive damage in the Lebap region where one of the quarantine zones is located. The fact that the authorities sought to cover up the destruction caused by this hurricane (see more below) might have been another reason why they were reluctant to have international experts visit this area, thus contributing to the delay of the WHO mission.

Public discussion stifled

In addition to insisting on the absence of any COVID-19 infections in the country, the authorities also took measures to stifle open discussion about the coronavirus and supposedly “prevent panic” among the public in relation to the pandemic.

National state-controlled media outlets were largely quiet about the COVID-19 pandemic and the authorities discouraged the use of the term “coronavirus”. At an early stage of the pandemic, brochures were distributed at schools, hospitals and workplaces to inform people about the coronavirus and measures to take to avoid being infected. However, a later version of this brochure that appeared in March 2020 made no mention of the virus but instead spoke about “acute respiratory infectious diseases” in general.

TIHR learned about a case in which police detained a woman in Ashgabat for wearing a medical mask, asking her if she “didn’t trust” the measures taken by the government to protect public health and telling her that people wearing masks “create panic”. She was fined before being released. The Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Azatlyk reported that plain clothed law enforcement officials listened in on discussions among residents at bus stops and in other public places and detained people who were speaking about the coronavirus, with some being locked up for 10 days.

Radio Azatlyk also reported that the Ministry of Health demanded that high-level managers at medical facilities ensure that there is no discussion among their staff about the coronavirus or current economic or political problems in the country. According to the service, the ministry demanded that the managers identify staff members who violate this informal ban, suppress any dissent and put pressure on outspoken employees through their family members.

Moreover, TIHR’s sources documented the following case involving a doctor who was possibly treating COVID-19 infected individuals:

  • In mid-April 2020, a doctor working in the quarantine zone in Turkmenabat was detained by security services after being found to have his cell phone in his pocket during his shift and in violation of staff rules in place in the zone. For two days, he was held for questioning at the local department of the Ministry of National Security (MNS) before being released. Accused of being negligent and violating confidentiality requirements, he was temporarily suspended from his work, while the MNS continued to investigate his case. The MNS confiscated his phone for the duration of the investigation, reportedly warning him that he “may be held criminally responsible” if they find out that he had transferred information, photos or videos to foreign media. The MNS also questioned his wife. A few days later, TIHR learned that the doctor had been allowed to resume his work and that his cell phone had been returned to him.

State-controlled media also continued attempts to discredit independent sources covering Turkmenistan because of their reporting about developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, an article that appeared on the pro-government Gundogar News site on 28th March 2020 accused the Turkmen service of RFE/RL of publishing “fake news” about cases of COVID-19 infections in Turkmenistan for the purpose of “creating panic”.

Peaceful Assembly and Association

Spontaneous protests related to economic crisis

As previously covered on the Monitor, public protests are rare in Turkmenistan because of the risk of persecution associated with any criticism of those in power. However, during the period covered by this update, citizens held spontaneous protests on several occasions to speak out about problems associated with the protracted economic crisis in the country, which has resulted in a worsening shortage of basic food items. As covered by independent sources, stores selling food at state subsidised prices have recently been offering decreasing rations of major staples such as flour, while prices for such staples have gone up among private traders. This has resulted in growing discontent.

  • According to TIHR’s information, on 4th April 2020, some 30 women gathered outside the office of the Mary regional administration and demanded to see the head of the administration to convey their concerns to him. The head of the administration - accompanied by two of his deputies and the regional police chief - eventually arrived to listen to the women, who complained about the shortage of flour and vegetable oil in state stores which sell food at subsidised prices. After receiving assurances from the head of the regional administration that he would investigate these issues, the women left.
  • In another case covered by Radio Azatlyk, about 100 women gathered outside the office of the local administration in the Farap district of the Lebap region on 14th April 2020 demanding to be given flour. However, the women’s requests were rejected and they were reportedly warned that they could be detained for 15 days if they continued to complain about the shortage.
  • In a third case reported by TIHR’s sources, a group of women standing in line to buy bread sold at state subsidised prices at a local store in the Dashoguz region on 9th May 2020 expressed their frustration about the shortage of flour to a local government official who was passing by. The head of the region’s Turkmenbashi district was on his way to inspect an agricultural complex when the women caught sight of him, surrounded him and started accusing him of being responsible for the lack of flour in the region because he had ordered vast lands previously used for wheat farming to be turned into cotton fields. After escaping from the agitated women, the government official called for the police, who arrived at the spot and briefly detained the women for questioning.
Continued mass mobilisation of citizens for state events

As covered previously by the Monitor, in violation of freedom of peaceful assembly, the Turkmenistani authorities regularly mobilise state employees, students and other residents for state-organised mass events, under threat of repercussions. This practice continued during the period covered by this report, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, in the context where many states have restricted mass gatherings. Thus, for example, mass Novruz spring holiday festivities were held across the country on 23rd March 2020. In the capital Ashgabat and several other cities, hundreds of employees at educational, cultural and arts institutions were mobilised to participate in these festivities, with rehearsals starting in mid-March. The president also gave orders about the organisation of other official mass celebrations, such as festivities to be held in connection with the national holiday of the Turkmen horse marked in late April 2020 and the end of the school year in May 2020.

The rehearsals for state-organised mass events are often intense and jeopardise the health and well-being of the participants, as illustrated by the following case:

  • On 21st February 2020, President Berdumukhamedov visited the Lebap region to inaugurate alarge mosque built in the city of Turkmenabat. According to TIHR’s information, a group of local elders was mobilised to participate in an official ceremony to greet the president in the mosque. A series of hour-long rehearsals was held, ending with a six-hour long final rehearsal on the eve of the president’s visit, during which the participants were not allowed to have anything to eat or drink. One of the elders, suffering from diabetes reportedly lost consciousness and needed medical attention. Despite the intense rehearsals, only some of the elders were finally sent to welcome the president, while the others were ordered to accompany them for the shooting of a TV report about the festive dinner that followed the inauguration.

Expression

Second lowest ranking in World Press Freedom Index

Turkmenistan has repeatedly received low rankings in surveys measuring the level of freedom in the world. In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Turkmenistan was ranked 179th among 180 countries. Only North Korea fared worse. When justifying Turkmenistan’s rating, RSF pointed out that its government controls all media, that internet users can only access a highly censored version of the internet and that the few journalists who work clandestinely for media outlets based abroad are subjected to ongoing harassment. These trends have been repeatedly covered on the Monitor.

Attempts to cover up hurricane

On 27th April 2020, a hurricane swept over the Lebap and Mary regions of Turkmenistan, causing significant damage. No official figures are available, but it is believed that at least two dozen people died, while many more went missing and hundreds of people saw their homes and other property destroyed because of the heavy storms. Independent Turkmenistan-covering sites based abroad promptly reported on the hurricane and published photos and videos of its devastating impact. However, as the authorities attempted to cover up the natural disaster, the country’s state-controlled media kept silent about it. Only a week after the hurricane, did a relatively small, unknown regional outlet Jeyhun News briefly report about the hurricane without mentioning any victims or detailing the damage it caused.

Moreover, instead of focusing on assisting the victims of the hurricane, the authorities went after citizens who are accused of documenting the destruction inflicted by the hurricane on their phones and of sharing photos and videos with contacts abroad. TIHR learned that more than 60 people were detained on these grounds in the city of Turkmenabat. Most of those detained were released after being questioned and warned that they would be “held accountable” if they did something similar again. However, some of the detainees faced charges. According to TIHR’s information, in one case, a woman detained for sending video material about the hurricane to her contacts abroad was charged with defaming law enforcement authorities and publicly insulting a representative of the authorities (under Criminal Code articles 192 and 212). At her trial held on 18th May 2020, she was fined and thereafter released after having been held in custody since her detention. In another case reported by TIHR’s sources, charges of publicly insulting a representative of the authorities were brought against a woman detained for filming the damage the hurricane had caused to her house and sending it to her daughter who lives abroad. As of mid-May 2020, TIHR had not received any additional information about her fate. When commenting on the government’s approach to the hurricane, Human Rights Watch stressed:

Turkmenistan’s priorities should never include hunting down people filming news in their region, but particularly now in the wake of a disaster, the priority should be making effective and comprehensive efforts to bring aid to all who need it.”

Citizens appeal through YouTube videos

Due to the restrictive free speech climate in Turkmenistan, citizens have few opportunities publicly to express their concerns at home and look for alternative ways to do so. The Sweden-based government opponent Khalmurad Soyunov, who runs a popular YouTube channel, told TIHR that he has received a growing number of requests from followers to share video appeals on his channel. In these appeals, the followers speak about socio-economic and other problems in Turkmenistan and criticise government policies, typically without showing their faces or revealing their names, and using the slogan “Güm bol (“Go away or disappear”). As of mid-April 2020, Soyunov had published more than 40 appeals on his channel.

Officials warn against spreading ‘fake news’ on economic crisis

High-ranking local officials gathered local elders in several districts of the Lebap region on 29th February 2020 to assure them that the government was “working hard” to solve the shortages of basic food items currently experienced in the region. The officials insisted that these problems were “temporary” and had been caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, although the protracted economic crisis began long before the pandemic. Law enforcement officials present at the meetings reportedly warned the participants about foreign media and social media reports that contain “false, slanderous information defaming the country”, and stated that residents who disseminate such information would be “held strictly liable”. The officials also called on those present immediately to inform the law enforcement authorities about people who “spread rumours”.

Reported death of exiled dissident

On 4th April 2020, a Turkmenistani pro-government site published a report about the alleged death of Sweden-based dissident journalist and writer Akmuhammet Velsaparov (also known as Ak Welsapar), together with a copy of a fake death certificate supposedly issued by a Swedish hospital. The dissident said he believed that this was an act of retaliation related to information posted on his YouTube channel called Erkin Turkmenistan (“Free Turkmenistan”). Recently Velsaparov has criticised the authorities for concealing the spread of the coronavirus in the country. Last year, his YouTube channel also received attention when publishing unconfirmed information about the alleged death of President Berdymukhamedov. As covered before on the Monitor, at the time, the authorities orchestrated a defamation campaign against those accused of spreading this information.

According to a statement issued by the Swedish PEN association, Velsaparov has been subjected to harassment by the Turkmenistani authorities for years, but the pressure has increased since last year. The association said that the Swedish authorities should “thoroughly investigate the sources of these threats”.

Velsaparov fled Turkmenistan in the early 1990s and has lived in Sweden since 1994.

Returning students face internet access challenges

As covered before on the Monitor, internet access in Turkmenistan is expensive and slow compared to global standards. In April 2020, the Speedtest Global Index again ranked Turkmenistan last in terms of the speed of fixed broadband connections worldwide. Poor internet connections created difficulties for Turkmenistani students enrolled at universities abroad. Many returned to their home country because of the COVID-19 pandemic and attempted to continue their studies online. Due to the slow internet connections, students reported being unable to take part in online classes or complete their assignments.