Today the annual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue will take place in Ashgabat, with a delegation from Brussels meeting with representatives of national authorities to discuss human rights issues. Turkmenistan’s government has recently adopted a national human rights action plan, established a human rights ombudsman’s office and revised human rights related legislation. However, as documented in a briefing paper prepared for the dialogue by Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), the human rights reality in the economic crisis-ridden country remains profoundly bleak.
The serious economic downturn currently seen in Turkmenistan has resulted from the plunge in revenues from its oil and gas exports and has hit its population hard, through rapidly increasing food prices, layoffs and other negative implications. In the context of the economic crisis, the government has further stepped up efforts to prevent the dissemination of information about the real state of affairs in the country among its population. Measures taken to this end include dismantling private satellite dishes used to receive foreign channels; blocking websites reporting independent information about developments in the country; intimidating Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty listeners, social media users and individuals who circumvent online censorship with the help of so-called VPNs; and growing pressure on critical voices.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Hudaiberdi Allashov and his mother were given a suspended three-year prison sentence on charges of possessing chewing tobacco in February 2017 after being held in detention for 2.5 months. They remain under supervision by law enforcement authorities and allegations of torture in this case have not been properly investigated. Freelance journalist Saparmamed Nepeskuliev continues to be imprisoned on charges of possessing prohibited drugs, with the government labelling him “psychologically unbalanced” and claiming that he is no real journalist. Nataliya Shabunts, an outspoken civil society activist who cooperates with TIHR, has had her internet connection cut off and been subjected to surveillance in recent months. The investigation into the attack against another critical voice, Umida Jumabaeva appears to have stalled and no one has been held accountable. Last year she had acid thrown at her by unknown perpetrators after appealing to authorities for justice for her son, a military conscript.
The personality cult surrounding President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who was re-elected with a reported 97.7 percent of the vote in February 2017 elections in which he faced no genuine competition, has recently reached new dimensions. People continue to be forcibly mass mobilized for events aimed at demonstrating the well-being of the nation, such as a nation-wide subbotnik (a day of unpaid labour) in March 2017 when residents were ordered to plant trees to the glory of the president.
Following the failed July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, Turkmenistani authorities carried out mass detentions of purported followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen and there are serious allegations that individuals targeted as part of this crackdown have been arbitrarily detained for extended periods, subjected to torture and ill-treatment and handed lengthy prison sentences in unfair trials.
As part of construction projects carried out ahead of the upcoming Asian Games (Asiada), which will take place in Ashgabat in September 2017 and constitute an important image-boosting event for the government, mass demolitions of housing and mass evictions of residents have been carried out without due advance notice or due legal safeguards. As documented by TIHR, local courts have formally approved eviction notes of residents refusing to accept offers to resettle in alternative housing at the outskirts of the capital, which does not correspond to their previous housing. Employees of state institutions and companies have also been required to contribute part of their salaries to cover the mounting costs of the Asiada, an event that the president takes personal pride in.
TIHR’s and IPHR’s briefing paper for the EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue addresses the above-mentioned issues, as well as other recent alarming developments related to freedom of expression, association and assembly; freedom of movement; freedom of religion; detention conditions and the prohibition on torture; women’s rights; and economic and social rights. It also describes a number of individual cases of serious concern.
The briefing paper can be downloaded here.
Turkmenistan continues to feature at the bottom of global freedom rankings, including Freedom House’s Freedom in the World survey, Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index and the CIVICUS Monitor worldwide assessment of civil society space.