Continued repression under new President

Continued repression under new President
Serdar Berdymukhamedov takes over the presidency from his father (REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov via Gallo Images).

Introduction 

This update covers developments related to the freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in Turkmenistan from February to June 2022.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 reporting period, Turkmenistan experienced an orchestrated transfer of power from father to son, with Serdar Berdymukhamedov assuming the presidency from his father Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who had held this office since 2006. On 19th March 2022, Serdar Berdymukhamedov took office following a presidential election, which was not free or fair and did not offer voters any real choice. Even after leaving the presidency, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov remains an influential figure and retains the position aschair of the upper chamber of parliament. The cult of personality that evolved around Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov during his presidency now extends to both him and his son.

In his inauguration address, Serdar Berdymukhamedov stated that his ‘’main duty’’ will be ‘’to protect the rights of citizens, as guaranteed by the constitution’’, and he pledged to ensure ‘’a humane state policy’’. However, as pointed out by TIHR and IPHR in a joint statement issued in June 2022, the new president has failed to take any meaningful steps to improve the human rights situation in the country, and repressive practices from his father’s reign continue.

During the reporting period, the authorities strictly controlled the flow of information and covered up negative developments, such as the protracted economic crisis and the management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Internet access remained slow, expensive, and restricted, with temporary outages regularly being reported, such as in mid-April 2022, when the internet was almost completely down in the country for several days.

The authorities continued to crack down on people who publicly express discontent about the situation in the country, stand up for their rights, and engage with like-minded people. In addition to directly putting pressure on such people and their relatives, security services also targeted people who have been in contact with them. This tactic was, for example, used against Soltan Achilova – an independent journalist who cooperates with TIHR -- and Arzuv Dzhepbarova – a vocal Ashgabat-based mother who first attracted the security services’ attention after she criticised corrupt practices at her daughter’s school in a video appeal posted on TIHR’s website.

Several people, such as journalist Nurgeldy Khalykov, doctor Khursanai Ismatullaeva, and lawyer Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, remain in prison on criminal charges in retaliation for their peaceful exercise of the freedoms of expression and association, although international human rights experts, foreign decision makers, and human rights groups have all called for their release. During the reporting period, TIHR learned of a new case of politically motivated imprisonment: an elderly man, Agajuma Bayramov, is believed to have served six years in prison on trumped-up charges after speaking to independent media about various socio-economic problems in the country. He was released earlier this year but has reported being subjected to ongoing pressure.

Outspoken activists based abroad also continue to face intimidation and harassment. While some foreign-based activists, such as Vepa Orazmukhammedov – whose case is covered in this update – have succeeded in legally challenging politically motivated government requests for their return to Turkmenistan, the threat of deportation still looms over other activists.

Public protests remain a rare occurance in Turkmenistan because of the repressive climate, although spontaneous protests occasionally take place when residents vent their frustration at hardships they are experiencing. For example, in a case covered in this update, a group of people protested against the shortage of bread sold at an affordable price in a state-run store in the capital Ashgabat.They were unable to buy bread after queuing for hours.

Thus far during the new president’s term, the authorities have continued to forcibly mobilise residents en masse for state-organised events, thereby violating their right to voluntarily participaten in assemblies and endangering their health and well-being. For example, hundreds of people were reported to have needed medical assistance after being made to participate in outdoor celebrations of the ex-president’s birthday in late June 2022, when the temperature was exceptionally high.

Moreover, in addition to continued repressive practices, there are reports that the human rights situation has deteriorated further in some respects since Serdar Berdymukhamedov took office. In particular, there have been alarming reports about increasing control and policing of women, with authorities implementing restrictive measures to enforce so-called traditional norms of clothing, appearance, and conduct among women and girls. This has resulted in violations of the rights of women and girls.

Expression

Policy of covering up crises

As covered before in previous updates, the Turkmenistani authorities strictly control the flow of information in the country and seek to cover up developments that may reflect badly on the government. As part of this approach, the government has consistently denied the prevalence of any COVID-19 cases in Turkmenistan, although independent sources have reported that the pandemic has seriously affected the country. The authorities have also sought to cover up the scope and impact of the protracted economic crisis, which has resulted in a lack of basic food items sold at state subsidised prices and other hardships affecting the population. There has been no change in policy in this respect since the new president took office.

Internet restrictions

The new president has also not announced any concrete initiatives to improve internet access, which currently is expensive, slow, and heavily censored in Turkmenistan.

In the 2022 Internet Accessibility Index, published by the UK-based broadbandchoices site, Turkmenistan was ranked 156 out of 164 in terms of the quality, availability,and cost of internet access, compared to different countries across the world. In particular, Turkmenistan fared poorly regarding the cost of mobile internet, with only three countries/territories (Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome and Principe, and Bermuda) found to have higher costs. The cost of 1 GB of mobile data amounted to 17 USDin Turkmenistan. In comparison, this cost was much lower in all other Central Asian countries, ranging from 0,8 USD in Kazakhstan to 3,5 USD in Tajikistan. Turkmenistan also had one of the world’s slowest on average internet download speeds, amounting to 0.37Mbps, with only four countries experiencing even slower connections (Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia). In comparison, the download speed in the other Central Asian countries ranged from 2.5 Mbps in Kyrgyzstan to 0.5Mbps in Tajikistan.

Independent news sites, social media platforms, messenger apps and other online resources have been arbitrarily blocked in Turkmenistan. Those who use internet circumvention tools to access blocked sites and obtain, share and exchange information which is critical of the authorities are at risk of persecution. Temporary internet outages are also regularly reported. For example, in mid-April 2022, several sources reported on widespread internet access problems. Data provided by the US-based internet service company CloudFare indicated that internet was almost completely down in Turkmenistan on 11th and 12th April 2022. The reason for this outage remains unclear. In another example, regular interruptions in internet access took place in Mary region at the beginning of May 2022, with local residents reporting being unable to open internet sites. However, the scope of the access problems varied between different parts of the region. TIHR was unable to determine the reasons for the disruptions. 

Campaign against satellite dishes

The Turkmenistani authorities have for years been carrying out a campaign against privately owned satellite dishes, which residents use to watch and listen to foreign TV and radio channels, including independent news channels. The authorities have forcibly dismantled satellite dishes, arguing that they “spoil the appearance” of residential buildings.

In a report indicating that the campaign against satellite dishes continues, TIHR learned in May 2022 that residents of an Ashgabat district had received written instructions to remove any satellite dishes to ensure the beauty of the capital.

Association

Ongoing pattern of persecution

Any civic engagement perceived as threatening to the authorities may result in persecution in Turkmenistan. People who dare to stand up for their rights, speak out against injustices, and communicate with groups and activists based abroad risk intimidation and harassment.

According to information received by TIHR, ahead of the March 2022 presidential elections, security services increased pressure on people considered ‘’unreliable’’ as well as those associated with them. Among those targeted was Arzuv Dzhepbarova who has been under surveillance from security services since 2019, when a video appeal by her was published on TIHR’s site. In this appeal, she spoke out about serious problems at her daughter’s school, including alleged corruption schemes in which parents are requested to pay bribes to ensure good grades for their children and for other purposes. On 25th February 2022, an unidentified young person believed to be a security service official reportedly visited Dzhepbarova’s neighbours and acquaintances in Ashgabat, asking about her and warning them that they might attract unwanted attention and run into problems if they remain in contact with her.

Independent journalist Soltan Achilova has reported being subjected to renewed pressure. In April 2022, she told TIHR that a young man was keeping watch outside the house where she lives. In addition, she said that security services have targeted people whom she has interviewed, questioning them about their conversations with her and warning them that they may face problems if they communicate with her. According to her, security service officials have told her interviewees that she is associated with ‘’subversive foreign organisations working against the state’’. Achilova, who previously worked for the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and currently cooperates with TIHR, has reported on socio-economic and other problems in Turkmenistan.

Another case of a critical voice being targeted that TIHR learned about is that of Agajuma Bayramov, an elderly resident from Mary region. Bayramov was reportedly released from prison earlier this year after spending six years behind bars on criminal charges believed to have been fabricated in retaliation for his efforts to draw attention to socio-economic problems and violations of the rights of citizens. He was prosecuted after submitting numerous appeals to authorities and thereafter giving several interviews to the Prague-based Turkmen Service of RFE/RL on issues such as unemployment, corrupt practices in education, and problems with transportation. Bayramov claims to have been regularly subjected to torture and ill-treatment in prison, as a result of which he lost his hearing and developed serious health issues. Following his release, he has reportedly remained under tight police control and been prohibited from leaving his home village without police permission. He was detained and sent back when he attempted to travel to Ashgabat to visit his sons in June 2022. His sons were also reportedly intimidated by police in connection with this incident.

Several other individuals are currently known to be imprisoned in Turkmenistan in retaliation for their peaceful exercise of the freedoms of expression and association. Among them are journalist Nurgeldy Khalykov, who was sentenced to four years in prison on fraud charges after the authorities discovered his cooperation with the Netherlands-based Turkmen News; doctor Khursanai Ismatullaeva, who was sentenced to nine years in prison on similar charges after seeking support from exile-based human rights groups in her struggle for justice over her unfair dismissal; and lawyer Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, who was handed a six-year prison sentence on charges of hooliganism and infliction of bodily harm, believed to have been initiated because of his alleged links to critical activists based abroad. UN human rights bodies, human rights groups, and foreign decisionmakers have all raised concerns about these cases.

In a decision made public in May 2022, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found the detention of lawyer Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev to be in violation of international human rights law. After assessing the case, the Working Group concluded that it was “convinced that the true reason for Mr. Allaberdyev’s arrest and detention was his peaceful exercise of the freedom of expression and freedom of association”. Its decision was issued in response to a petition filed by the NGO Freedom Now and the international law firm Vinson & Elkins. 

Also, on the first anniversary of doctor Khursanai Ismatullaeva’s arrest in July 2022, several European Parliamentarians joined representatives of four human rights NGOs in issuing a joint statement calling on the Turkmenistani authorities to ensure a review of the criminal case against the doctor, release her from detention, and hold those responsible for herprosecution to account.

In addition to targeting critics living in Turkmenistan, the authorities have sought the detention and return of outspoken activists based abroad. These individuals would be at serious risk of politically motivated arrest, imprisonment, and torture were they to be returned to their native country. In a welcome development in March 2022, a Turkish court ruled to release Turkmenistani activist Vepa Orazmukhammedov, who had been held in detention since October 2021 and was facing return to Turkmenistan. The Turkmenistani government had requested the issuance of an Interpol arrest warrant in his case. Orazmukhammedov has openly criticised the situation in Turkmenistan in online video appeals and taken part in meetings initiated by foreign-based opposition movements.

The authorities also continue to put pressure on activists based abroad through their relatives who live in Turkmenistan. For example, in February 2022, the mother of foreign-based activist Rozgeldy Choliev faced intimidation. Police in Ashgabat reportedly summoned her for questioning about her son and promised that she would be granted an apartment in a new building on condition that her son stops criticising the authorities and returns to Turkmenistan. In response, Choliev’s mother asked the police to stop bothering her family and said that her son is grown-up and responsible for his own actions. This was not the first time that Choliev’s relatives were subjected to intimidation since he started posting videos critical of Turkmenistan’s government on the internet in 2020.

Peaceful Assembly

No real space for protests

As covered before, public protests rarely take place in Turkmenistan because of the repressive climate. In some cases, however, people hold spontaneous protests to voice misgivings about the situation in the country, such as the shortage of basic food items sold at affordable prices and other issues related to the protracted economic crisis in the country. In the following case, a protest startedover the shortage of bread sold at state-subsidised prices, a problem that has worsened in recent months:

  • As reported by the Turkmen service of RFE/RL, Radio Azatlyk, on 9th February 2022, several dozen people started vocally complaining and protesting when they were unable to buy bread at a state-run store located at the Bereketli bazaar in Ashgabat, where they had been queuing since the early morning. The store ran out of bread before it was their turn. While most protesters remained peaceful, at least one person in the crowd deliberately broke the window of the store, according to eyewitness reports. The staff at the store called the police, asking them to come and disperse the crowd. However, the protesters left at their own initiative before the police arrived. The police opened an investigation into the incident of the broken window.

As previously reported, anyone who publicly expresses discontent is at risk of reprisals as shown by this example involving a public employee who spoke out at an election event held during the reporting period:

  • According to TIHR’s information, on 5th March 2022, an employee in the housing management sector was penalised after criticising the situation in the country at a pre-election meeting held in the city of Turkmenabat. A number of people, including directors of different organisations, elderly representatives, and workers, spoke at the meeting, which was portrayed as being aimed at discussing the upcoming presidential elections in general, but de-facto was a campaign event in support of Serdar Berdymukhamedov. When the housing management employee wanted to speak, she was not allowed to do so. As a result, she started voicing grievances off stage, including by yelling that she will not vote in the presidential elections, saying that ‘’nothing will improve anyway’’. She was led out of the meeting room. The same evening, police arrived at her home and took her to a local police department, where she was handed a court decision sanctioning her detention for eight days for allegedly resisting a law enforcement officer. She served out this sentence. 

In the following case, large groups of people gathered after learning about an opportunity to submit formal complaints to authorities:

  • According to TIHR’s information, on 27th and 28th March 2022, hundreds of people queued outside the central office of the state mobile operator Altyn Asyr in Ashgabat to obtain forms for the submission of official complaints being disseminated there. The forms stated that the complaints would be considered within four months and that there was no fee for submitting complaints with one’s name and address. While the people queuing for the forms did not receive any explanation as to what type of complaints they could submit or by whom the complaints would be considered, there was an assumption that it was an initiative of the newly elected president to learn about problems facing residents. However, after completing the forms, people were not able to hand them in at Altyn Asyr’s office but were advised to turn to the offices of local authorities, where there appeared to be confusion about the initiative. This example demonstrates the lack of opportunities for local residents to convey concerns to the authorities, with so many people being willing to line up for complaint forms without knowing the purpose of them.

Forced mass mobilisation

As covered before, the Turkmenistani authorities regularly mass mobilise state employees, students, and other residents for state-organised events at the threat of dismissal, loss of benefits, and other repercussions. This practice violates the right to voluntary participation in assemblies.

During the new president’s first few months in office, new cases of forced mass mobilisation took place. The following case is of particular concern as it seriously endangered the health and well-being of participants:

  • On 29th June 2022, musical-cultural events were organised to mark the 65-year anniversary of former President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov. The celebrations went ahead as planned, although the weather was exceptionally hot, with temperatures over 45 degrees Celsius. State employees, people working for public organisations and students were required to attend the celebrations, which were primarily held outdoors in public parks, at the threat of repercussions. For example, correspondents of Radio Azatlyk reported that the heads of public organisations in the city of Turkmenabad warned their employees that they would keep a record of who attended the events and that those who failed to show up would be fired. According to TIHR’s information, in the capital Ashgabat – where the main celebrations were held, hundreds of people who attended or performed at the events organised in the ex-president’s honour required medical assistance, with some of them being hospitalised in serious condition.