While insisting it’s COVID-19 free, Turkmenistan renews efforts to clamp down on dissent

While insisting it’s COVID-19 free, Turkmenistan renews efforts to clamp down on dissent
Government continues to deny the existence of COVID-19 in Turkmenistan (REUTERS/Vyacheslav Sarkisyan).

Introduction

This update covers developments relating to the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Turkmenistan from August to November 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.

During the period covered by this update, Turkmenistan’s government continued its policy of COVID-19 denial, claiming that the global pandemic had not reached the country, although independent Turkmenistan-covering outlets reported about a growing number of coronavirus infections. Thus, the authorities continued to sacrifice the health, well-being and lives of residents for the questionable honour of maintaining Turkmenistan’s status as a COVID-19 free country, along with North Korea and a few island nations in the South Pacific.As part of their attempts to cover up the national COVID-19 outbreak, the authorities failed to inform citizens about the real purpose of preventive measures, such as the compulsory use of masks in public places and restrictions on internal movement, which were implemented on recommendation by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Monitoring during the reporting period also documented selective and arbitrary enforcement of such restrictions.

The authorities continued to use national, state-controlled media for propaganda purposes, while restricting access to foreign sources of information. TIHR’s website was subjected to a new series of cyberattacks because of its independent coverage of developments inside the largely closed country, including a particularly powerful attack that almost led to the site going offline in September 2020. There were new attempts to prevent residents from using satellite dishes to watch and listen to foreign channels, and agricultural managers faced intimidation following reports by TIHR and other independent, foreign-based outlets about unlawful practices during the cotton harvest.

Amid growing criticism of Turkmenistan’s government both on- and offline in recent months, the authorities continued to put pressure on outspoken activists living abroad, their relatives in Turkmenistan, and local residents suspected of ties with such activists. Dursoltan Taganova, a Turkey-based activist who was detained in Istanbul in July 2020 and threatened with deportation to her native country, was released in October 2020 following campaigning on her behalf. However, she remains at risk. She was declared wanted and denounced as a “traitor” in Turkmenistan and her relatives living there were subjected to intimidation and harassment. Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, a Turkmenistan-based lawyer accused of contacts with members of the anti-government protest movement abroad, was handed a six-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges following a closed trial in September 2020. In another case illustrating the authorities’ intolerance of any independent civic activity, a woman of retirement age faced retaliation when she sought to enforce her right to obtain an apartment in the country’s heavily regulated housing market and spoke out against corruption in this area.

The reporting period also saw several new spontaneous protests initiated by residents of Turkmenistan who expressed their resentment at the shortages of basic food items sold at state-subsidised prices, andthe shortages of cash at ATMs – both problems related to the protracted economic crisis in the country that has deteriorated further during the COVID-19 pandemic. The authorities sought to quell these protests using tactics of intimidation on the one hand, and persuasion on the other. At the same time, the authorities continued to organise state events involving large numbers of participants, mobilising state employees, students and other residents to participate in these events at the threat of repercussions for non-compliance and in violation of COVID-19 preventive measures enforced in other contexts.

These issues are covered in more detail below.

Expression

Continued policy of COVID-19 denial

As reported before, Turkmenistan’s government has responded to the global COVID-19 pandemic with denial and cover-ups. The government has continued to insist that the pandemic has not reached the country, although information from independent sources suggests that there is a serious, national COVID-19 outbreak.

During the period covered by this update, independent Turkmenistan-covering outlets reported a growing number of COVID-19 infections, including among medical staff and prisoners. Those with COVID-19 like symptoms who require treatment were typically diagnosed with “pneumonia”.

At the same time, the government continued its policy of COVID-19 denial. After opening a new hospital for the treatment of infectious diseases in the Yzgant settlement on 13th November 2020, President Berdymukhamedov again claimed that there have been no COVID-19 cases in the country. He stated: “As a result of the preventive measures taken, no cases of coronavirus infection have been registered in the country so far, which is a positive indicator and our great achievement.” The new hospital specialises in the treatment of people suffering from acute respiratory and other infectious diseases, including those of “unknown origin” and is thus likely, de-facto, to treat COVID-19 patients.

While denying and seeking to cover up the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, the authorities in Turkmenistan have nevertheless introduced measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus in accordance with the recommendations made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) mission who visited the country in July 2020. While the WHO experts stopped short of concluding that there was a COVID-19 outbreak in Turkmenistan, they said that they were “extremely concerned” about “numerous reports of an increasing number of acute respiratory infections or pneumonia of unknown origin”. They called on the authorities to “take the same measures as in those countries where the [Corona]virus has begun to spread”. In addition to restrictions on internal movement and the operations of commercial and other facilities, the Turkmenistani authorities have enforced the compulsory use of masks in public places. However, as covered before, the authorities have failed to explain the real purpose of these measures, instead using ludicrous arguments such as claiming these measures are needed because of the allegedly increased levels of dust in the air and the supposedly documented risk of viruses being borne by air currents from abroad.

Moreover, TIHR’s monitoring showed that the enforcement of COVID-19 related restrictions was selective and reinforced corrupt practices. Other sources also reported on arbitrary law enforcement in the context of COVID-19 prevention. A high-ranking representative of the Interior Ministry told Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), that all police officers had been ordered to issue at least one fine per day for violations of the requirement to wear masks; if not they would have to pay the fine themselves and issue a protocol for a relative or acquaintance. The service also learned that police in the city of Mary had received orders to disperse any crowd of people they see “under the pretext of the coronavirus” and to detain those who refuse to comply. As Eurasianet concluded, this illustrates how “the authorities are making dexterous use of the pandemic to further clamp down on any kind of independent social activity”.

Intimidation related to independent reports about unlawful practices in the cotton harvest

As repeatedly covered on the Monitor, while tightly controlling national media, the authorities of Turkmenistan obstruct access to foreign sources of information. In particular, they block access to Turkmenistan-covering sites based abroad. Residents of the country nevertheless follow such sites, using censorship circumvention tools such as VPNs. In September 2020, TIHR learned about an odd response by local authorities to information appearing on foreign-based sites about unlawful practices duringthe cotton harvest, including corruption and the use of child labour. According to TIHR’s information, authorities in the Lebap region threatened the heads of agricultural associations with dismissal should “negative information” appear again in foreign media.

Continued campaign against satellite dishes

In another campaign that has been ongoing for years, the Turkmenistani authorities seek to prevent access to foreign sources of information by prohibiting residents from using satellite dishes and forcibly dismantling such devices. The authorities have argued that satellite dishes “spoil the appearance” of residential buildings. During the reporting period, TIHR learned about new cases involving this tactic. In one case, residents of several Ashgabat districts were ordered to promptly remove sunshades, air conditioners and satellite dishes from common areas (including outdoor areas in front of entrances) at the threat of otherwise being fined. Following earlier bans on installing satellite dishes on house walls and the forcible removal of such devices, many residents have instead installed satellite dishes on the ground outside the entrances of residential buildings.

Powerful cyberattack on TIHR’s site

TIHR’s site, The Chronicles of Turkmenistan is one of the independent Turkmenistan-covering sites that is blocked inside the country, meaning that it can only be accessed there with the help of VPNs and similar tools. In addition, TIHR’s site is regularly subjected to cyberattacks involving the use of bots (internet robots) aimed at disrupting its work. The attacks also include coordinated denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that are used to disrupt normal traffic to the site. TIHR’s site administrator monitors and blocks smaller-scale attacks, while built-in infrastructure allows for filtering DDoS attacks. However, on 22nd September 2020, the site was targeted by a particularly powerful DDoS attack, as a result of which TIHR had to inform visitors about possible temporary interruptions in its operation while the attack was being dealt with. Two weeks earlier, there had been an attempt to disrupt TIHR’s YouTube Channel.

TIHR believes that the cyberattacks on its online resources are carried out by Turkmenistan’s security services because of its independent coverage of developments in the country and its criticism of government policies.

Association

Intimidation of activists in- and outside Turkmenistan

As covered in the previous update, the Turkmenistani authorities have recently stepped up pressure on critical voices in response to growing expressions of discontent with the government on social media, a wave of anti-government rallies held by Turkmenistani diaspora communities and several spontaneous protests inside the country. The authorities have targeted activists living abroad and their relatives in the country on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Turkmenistan-based individuals who have used social media platforms to speak out against the government or who have been in contact with activists abroad.

In the previous update, we reported that local authorities detained Turkey-based activist Dursoltan Taganova on 19th July 2020 in connection with a planned rally against the Turkmenistani government’s flawed COVID-19 response and its repressive policies in Istanbul. She was placed in a migration centre pending deportation to Turkmenistan – officially for a visa violation, but in reality in retaliation for her engagement in the protest movement against Turkmenistan’s government. Following campaigning by rights groups, who sounded the alarm that Taganova would be at imminent risk of torture and other human rights violations if sent back to Turkmenistan, she was released on 12th October 2020. Taganova had previously applied for asylum in Turkey and was granted an asylum-seeker certificate valid for one year. She nevertheless remains at risk. According to the Memorial Human Rights Centre and the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, following Taganova’s release, authorities in Turkmenistan warned her relatives there that she had been declared wanted as a “swindler” and would be arrested if she returns to the country. Her relatives were also told that her pictures had been disseminated among police stations across the country and that she had been included in a police database of “traitors”. In addition, RFE/RL reported that local authorities have launched an orchestrated smear campaign against Taganova, accusing her of attempting to “destabilise” the situation in Turkmenistan. Since Taganova first started postingvideos critical of the government on the internet – without hiding her identity – in June 2020, her relatives who live in Turkmenistan have repeatedly been subjected to intimidation and harassment, including by being summoned for questioning, detained, allegedly ill-treated and pressured to denounce the activist on camera.

In another case, police in the city of Balkanabad arrested lawyer Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev for allegedly getting into a fight with another man, who had attacked and tried to provoke a conflict with him on 5th September 2020. Rights groups believe that the lawyer was targeted because of his alleged links to members of the anti-government protest movement abroad. Following Allaberdyev’s arrest, his family was not allowed to see him and he was only granted access to a lawyer arranged for by them on 8th September 2020. However, the lawyer subsequently withdrew from the case and other lawyers the family contacted refused to take up the case, apparently fearing reprisals because of the politically motivated nature of the case. At a trial held behind closed doors on 29th September 2020, a local court sentenced Allaberdyev to six years in prison on charges of “hooliganism” and “intentional infliction of moderate bodily harm”. His family received no official information about the court ruling and the court turned down a request from his wife to get a copy of it.

Retaliatory measures against woman for speaking out against corruption

TIHR reported on the case of Gulsenem Taganova, an Ashgabat resident who was subjected to retaliatory measures after seeking to claim her right to obtain an apartment in the country’s heavily regulated housing sector. Since the early 2000s, Taganova worked as a gardener at a subsidiary of Türkmengaz, Turkmenistan’s national gas company, and for 13 years she has been queuingunder a housing programme for the allocation of apartments to employees of this and other state companies. However, she did not get an apartment, although many who joined the queue after her did. As a result, she started complaining to the company management and state institutions, including through a video appeal to the president, which was posted on TIHR’s site in August 2020. In this appeal, she alleged corruption in the housing programme for the allocation of apartments. Taganova also turned to lawyers in an attempt to help enforce her rights. In apparent retaliation for this activism, she was forced firstto transfer to the department of communal services of the city of Ashgabat and then to retire. In addition, in what Taganova believes was an attempt to intimidate her, on 15th November 2020 an unknown man cut off the telephone wire to the apartment where she now lives with her daughter’s family. The perpetrator was caught on surveillance camera and neighbours identified him as a person living nearby. The video material was handed over to local police and Taganova’s daughter took a police officer to the perpetrator’s apartment. However, the following day, the police officer told her that there was nothing police could do in this case since the man in question works for the national security services. Currently Taganova and her daughter’s family of five people share a one-room apartment.

Peaceful Assembly

New spontaneous protests related to economic crisis

As covered before on the Monitor, public protests are rare in Turkmenistan because of the repressive environment in the country, where anyone who publicly voices discontent with the authorities is at the risk of persecution. However, recent months have seen several spontaneous protests initiated by citizens venting their frustration at problems related to the protracted economic crisis in the country, such as the worsening lack of major food staples at state stores and the lack of cash at ATMs.

State stores in Turkmenistan sell food at subsidised and thus more affordable prices for most people in the largely impoverished population than the market prices used by private retailers. However, as documented in a recent report issued by TIHR and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the pre-existing problem of shortages of basic food products sold at state stores has been further exacerbated during the global COVID-19 pandemic, with people queuing for hoursto try to buy such productsoften being turned away empty-handed. Recent months have also seen worsening cash shortages, resulting in long queues in front of ATMs, as cash is still the only accepted form of payment in many stores and market places, although salaries and pensions are paid out through bank transfers.

These are examples of spontaneous protests on crisis-related issues that took place during the reporting period:

  • In the Karakum district of the Mary region, residents staged a spontaneous protest at the lack of flour sold at state subsidised prices. According to Radio Azatlyk, on 10th November 2020, about 30 people who were standing in line at a local state store to buy the promised monthly ration of flour took off at the local government administration when learning that there was not enough flour for the several hundred people wishing to buy this staple. They demanded that the authorities solve the problem with the lack of flour at state stores and grant them the flour rations to which they are entitled. A representative of the local administration came out to talk to the protesters, but after exchanging a few words with them he called the police, who promptly arrived and dispersed the crowd.
  • Turkmen News reported cash-related protests in the city of Balkanabad. On 7th September 2020, about 200 people were unable to withdraw money at Turkmenistan Bank-operated ATMs in the city, although they had been standing in line for most of the day to do so. They decided to complain to the authorities and first went to the regional prosecutor’s office, where officials said that they did not deal with these kinds of issues and advised them to go to the Central Bank’s branch office in the city. Central Bank officials promised that money would be available at the ATMs “within half an hour”. However, this did not happen and eventually the protesters had to go home without cash. On 25th September 2020, about 300 people who had a similar experience and were unable to withdraw cash after standing in line for hours also went to the prosecutor’s office. This time, officials there intervened and contacted the director of the Turkmenistan Bank, and as a result protesters were able to get cash.

Anti-government protests abroad

As reported before on the Monitor, in recent months, Turkmenistani activists residing abroad have staged several peaceful anti-government rallies against the government’s COVID-19 response and other current policies.

During the period covered by this update, Turkmenistani activists living in Turkey attempted to hold a protest outside Turkmenistan’s consulate in Istanbul on 25th October 2020. However, when learning about these plans, consulate staff informed Turkish police, and when the activists arrived at the consulate they were met by police officers and armed security guards and could not go ahead with the rally. Due to COVID-19, Turkish authorities have restricted the conduct of assemblies. Turkish police reportedly detained two activists on accusations of migration violations in connection with the planned rally. One of them was later released, but the other remained in detention as at the end of November 2020. No additional information about the cases of these two activists was available to TIHR and IPHR at the time of writing.

TIHR also learned about plans by Turkmenistani activists based abroad to organise a virtual anti-government protest on 6th December 2020. The opposition movement Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan was the initiator of this event, which was aimed at attracting international attention to the systematic human rights violations taking place in Turkmenistan and at communicating concrete demands to President Berdymukhmedov, such as the release of political prisoners.

Corruption in enforcing restrictions on family gatherings

TIHR reported on the corrupt practices in the enforcement of restrictions on family gatherings for COVID-19 preventive purposes. According to TIHR’s sources, residents of Turkmenabat who wish to organise weddings, birthdays or other celebrations in local restaurants, which officially are not allowed to operate, are able to do so if they are prepared to pay a bribe of 5,000 manat (approximately 200 USD at the black market rate) to relevant authorities. TIHR’s sources also reported that private gatherings involving a large number of guests regularly take place in some Ashgabat restaurants.

Mass mobilisation for state events

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Turkmenistani authorities have continued mobilising state employees, students and other residents for state-organised mass events, although there have been fewer events of this kind than previously. This problematic practice, which violates the right of residents to voluntary participation in assemblies, has been repeatedly documented in previous Monitor updates. In addition, when implemented during the pandemic, it has exposed citizens to a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.

These are two examples from the reporting period:

  • On Saturday 7th November 2020, a so-called subbotnik – a day of free labour for public purposes – took place across the country. According to TIHR’s information, employees at state and public institutions, students, schoolchildren and army conscripts were mobilised to plant trees and clean outdoor areas. The president himself took part in the tree planting action, as part of which a total of 25 million trees were planned to be planted in honour of the 25 year anniversary of the country’s declaration of permanent neutrality. The participants in the subbotnik did not comply with COVID-19 protection measures, such as wearing masks or keeping a physical distance, although the authorities enforce such measures in other contexts.
  • On 10th November 2020, state-organised festivities were held in an Ashgabat district in connection with the opening of a new residential complex and shopping centre, and the unveiling of a large golden statue of the Alabay dog (a breed considered part of national heritage). President Berymukhamedov personally participated in the festivities, and his car cortege was accompanied by national-style dancing, while children and cultural collectives sang at the event. According to TIHR’s sources, preparations for the event were under way for several days, with local residents being mobilised to carefully rehearse the dancing and singing programmes, as well as to clean up the territory where the festivities took place. Official TV footage showed that participants in the event did not wear masks or keep a safe distance. The unveiling of the six-metre tall golden dog statue attracted the attention of leading international media outlets – for example, the New York Times noted that “opulent monuments” such as this one “stand in stark contrast with the everyday lives of many in a country that remains impoverished despite rich reserves of natural gas”.

In late November 2020, pro-state media reported that a decision had been made to “limit the number of participants” in upcoming events organised in connection with the 25 year anniversary of Turkmenistan’s neutrality in order to prevent the spread of “acute infectious diseases”. Among others, several planned concerts were to be held without audiences. It remains unclear whether this signalled any change in the approach to mass mobilisation for state events beyond those related to the neutrality anniversary. The anniversary of the declaration of neutrality has been marked throughout the year leading up to Neutrality Day, celebrated on 12th December 2020.