The authorities of Turkmenistan strictly control the dissemination of information about the situation in the country. State media focuses on the supposed well-being of the country and the achievements of its government, while ignoring problems affecting the everyday life of residents such as the lack of basic foodstuffs and life-saving medicines in the context of the current economic crisis. These media outlets also seek to discredit independent Turkmenistan-covering news outlets based abroad, which residents can only access using tools that circumvent internet censorship. Residents are expected to demonstrate their loyalty to their home country and their president, whose personality cult flourishes. In order to monitor the loyalty of citizens and identify “suspicious” behaviour, the authorities use various tactics ranging from recruiting informants among students enrolled at universities in Turkey to requiring video operators to hand in material filmed at family celebrations to the police and security services.
The authorities continue to organise mass events to demonstrate the prosperity and happiness of the nation, such as a biking event on the day now marked as World Biking Day worldwide at Turkmenistan’s initiative. Residents are not only mobilised to take part in such mass events but also required to contribute to covering the costs of them. Anyone who expresses discontent about the situation in the country risks intimidation and harassment, including questioning, “blacklisting” for travel abroad, and detention, prosecution and imprisonment.
Gulgeldy Annaniyazov is spending his 59th birthday imprisoned in #Turkmenistan. He's been there since 2009 and was given an additional 5 yr sentence this year on unknown charges. He should be released. #ProveTheyAreAlive pic.twitter.com/7o4jtW9xJH
— Freedom Now (@freedomnoworg) August 22, 2019
Imprisoned dissident Gulgeldy Annaniyazov had five more years added to his 11-year sentence shortly before he was due to be released, and cotton harvest monitor Gaspar Matalaev continues to serve a three-year sentence, although UN human rights experts have deemed his imprisonment unlawful and more than 100,000 people have called for his release. The authorities of Turkmenistan also seek to prevent “excessive” expressions of the exercise of religion, resulting in people fearing being branded as “extremist” for visibly practising their beliefs, such as fasting during Ramadan.
These issues are covered in more detail below in this report, which reviews the protection of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Turkmenistan from the end of March to the end of June 2019. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have prepared the report for the CIVICUS Monitor.
Reminder from @IFJGlobal that #humanrights activist Gaspar Matalaev remains in prison after reporting on #childlabor in #Turkmenistan cotton fields–Take action today to demand his release! @cottoncampaign @UGFHumanRights @ILRF @steveswerdlowhttps://t.co/A2XVp7TLOZ
— Solidarity Center (@SolidarityCntr) June 28, 2019
The authorities of Turkmenistan continue to control all media in the country, restrict access to alternative information from abroad and intimidate and harass those who dare to challenge state propaganda. Turkmenistan ranked last in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, which Reporters without Borders published in April 2019. The organisation called Turkmenistan an “ever-expanding news ‘black hole’”.
Attacks on TIHR’s website and its staff
As covered previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, internet use is seriously restricted in Turkmenistan. Internet speed is slow and prices high compared to global standards, while independent sites reporting on developments in Turkmenistan, social media sites, as well as messenger apps are only available with the help of proxy servers, which the authorities also seek to block.
In addition to being blocked in Turkmenistan, TIHR’s website, The Chronicles of Turkmenistan is regularly subjected to cyber attacks, which the organisation believes are initiated by the Turkmenistani security services. In late April 2019, the site was the target of an unusually intense DDoS attack, resulting in an excessively high load on its server that made the administrators fear that the site may go down. TIHR was, however, able to navigate the attack and this did not happen.
Turkmenistan’s authorities also try to discredit TIHR’s publications. State-controlled media outlets regularly publish articles that supposedly disprove information posted by independent sources such as TIHR. The gundogar-news.com site has even created a separate section for such articles, called “Rubbish about us”. With the play on words, manipulation of facts and direct attacks, this site tries to convince its readers that TIHR’s publications are false and made-up. For example, an article published on 4th April 2019 referred to TIHR’s website as a “deceitful fake [news] generator” and claimed that its posts are “independent of the truth and conscience”. Another article published on 8th April 2019 claimed that “destructive elements calling themselves opponents, legal experts and human rights defenders use disinformation as a tool for manipulation and control” and featured a family photo of TIHR’s head Farid Tukhbatullin and his son Ruslan Tukhbatullin, who also works for TIHR. It is not clear how this photo got into the site’s possession.
Civil society appeals in support of imprisoned government critics
Turkmenistan’s authorities continue to use politically motivated imprisonment as a tool to intimidate and silence critical voices. During the reporting period, international NGO coalitions issued appeals in support of two government critics who are currently serving prison sentences believed to have been handed down on such grounds:
On 10th May 2019, the Prove They Are Alive! NGO Campaign urged the international community to urgently intervene on behalf of imprisoned dissident Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, after learning that the Turkmenistani authorities had added five more years to the 11-year sentence handed to him in 2008. The new sentence was imposed shorty before the original one expired. First imprisoned in 1995 for organising a peaceful demonstration, Annaniyazov fled Turkmenistan after being amnestied and was granted asylum in Norway in 2002. In 2008, he returned to Turkmenistan, after President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov came to power on promises of reform. However, Turkmenistan’s authorities soon arrested and imprisoned Annaniyazov on charges of illegal border crossing. For years, he was held incommunicado and denied contact with his family. The details of his new sentence are not known, but extending the sentences of political prisoners who are about to be released is a well-known practice used by authoritarian governments.
On 3rd May 2019, World Press Freedom Day, a coalition of international NGOs working on labour rights appealed to Turkmenistan’s President Berdymukhamedov to release Gaspar Matalaev. Matalaev, an activist monitoring and reporting on human rights violations in the cotton harvest, was arrested in October 2016 and sentenced to three years in prison on charges of fraud and bribery following an unfair trial held in November 2016. He was allegedly forced to confess to the charges against him under torture, including the use of electric shocks. In 2018, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention deemed his imprisonment arbitrary and called for his release. More than 100 000 people signed on to an international petition in support of Mataleav’s release, which was handed over to Turkmenistan’s embassy in Washington, DC, on 22nd May 2019.
Joint NGO letter to the EBRD emphasises growing pressure on journalists and activists
On 18th June 2019, IPHR, TIHR and Human Rights Watch sent a joint letter to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in view of the Bank’s review of its country strategy for Turkmenistan. The three organisations emphasised that there have been no concrete human rights improvements in Turkmenistan since the EBRD last reviewed its strategy for the country in 2014 and that the situation, in some respects, has deteriorated further. In particular, in the context of the current economic crisis, the authorities have stepped up pressure on journalists working with foreign media, civil society activists and others speaking up about problems in the country, as well as their family members. The three organisations urged the EBRD not to expand its programmes in Turkmenistan to include public sector lending until the government has demonstrated concrete and measurable human rights progress and to use benchmarks recently adopted by the European Parliament to measure Turkmenistan’s progress in this area.
Monitoring the “loyalty” of citizens
Turkmenistan’s authorities use different means to compile information about the “loyalty” and “reliability” of citizens, both those living in the country and those living abroad. During the reporting period, TIHR received information about several tactics used by the authorities to this end. These tactics are of concern in the light of freedom of expression, the right to privacy and other fundamental rights.
TIHR learned that the migration and security services have recently been questioning Turkmen citizens returning from Turkey, including those officially working there. For several hours, those targeted have been held at Ashgabat airport and asked about the reasons they went to Turkey, what they did there, and what “does not suit” them in Turkmenistan. A topic of particular interest to the authorities has been whether those questioned have any connections to exiled opposition actors or “hostile” websites that report independently about the situation in Turkmenistan from abroad (such as TIHR’s site), as well as whether they have any social media sites of their own. In addition, the authorities have confiscated the mobile phones of those targeted for checking, returning them later.
TIHR also received information that Turkmenistan’s embassy in Ankara is recruiting informants among students from Turkmenistan enrolled at educational institutions in Turkey. At a meeting for students organised at the embassy on the eve of the Novruz holiday in late March 2019, embassy representatives invited the participating students to monitor co-students from Turkmenistan in exchange for financial rewards and certificates of honour. The potential informers were asked to gather information about what their co-students do in their spare time, what questions they discuss with friends and what internet sites they visit. They were encouraged to pay particular attention to students who express negative views about Turkmenistan and the president’s policies.
In another example of how the authorities gather information about citizens, TIHR’s monitors reported that private video operators who are engaged to film weddings and other family celebrations are required to submit all the filmed material to the police and security services for checking. This should be done without informing those who hired the operators. According to video operators with whom TIHR’s monitors were in contact, security service officials have demanded that they intentionally film discussions involving drunk guests. These episodes are not included in the videos delivered to those who ordered them but remain in the possession of the law enforcement authorities. This practice appears to be aimed at collecting compromising material about citizens.
So-called third generation tests are also used to identify “unreliable” citizens, including those who have relatives who have been convicted on politically motivated grounds. The Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that people seeking employment in state institutions, as well as parents of children starting kindergarten and school are now required to provide information about their relatives going back three generations in an electronic format, using flash drives. On the required form, they have to fill out the names, dates and places of birth, the addresses, as well as information about the places of work and possible court imposed convictions of the relatives. The requirement to provide information about relatives over three generations is not new as such, only its implementation. According to RFE/RL, employees at state institutions are also required to re-submit information about their relatives every year.
New cases of forcible mobilisation for state events
As we have covered before, Turkmenistan’s authorities regularly mobilise residents for various state-organised mass events, on threat of dismissal or other repercussions, in violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
President Berdimukhamedov is an ardent biker and during his time in office the authorities have actively promoted biking. The authorities regularly organise mass cycling events, mobilising employees at state institutions, students, schoolchildren and other residents for these events. On 3rd June 2019, the authorities organised a mass biking event in the capital Ashgabat. Last year the UN General Assembly declared this day World Biking Day at Turkmenistan’s initiative, which state media hailed as a foreign policy achievement of the president and a sign of the “global recognition” of Turkmenistan’s role in the development of the international sports movement. According to the state TDH news agency, thousands of people gathered early in the morning for the biking event, including government officials, diplomats, representatives of public organisations and media, members of labour collectives, students and schoolchildren. The president also took part. The Turkmen service of RFE/RL reported that the State Sports Committee had ordered the directors of public sporting schools to gather money for the purchase of bikes, tracksuits and other equipment for the participants. In an increasingly common practice, the authorities do not only require residents to take part in sports and other state-organised mass events but also to contribute money to cover the costs of these events. In addition to the mass biking event, the president also took the initiative to set a new record for the Guinness World Records book in connection with the World Biking Day. As a result, the record for the world’s longest single line bicycle parade now officially belongs to Turkmenistan’s government. A total of 1995 participants took part in setting this record.
In another practice that is of concern in view of both freedom of peaceful assembly and the ban on forced labour, Turkmenistan’s authorities regularly organise so-called subbotniki, or days of free labour, requiring state employees and other residents to carry out work for free under the threat of repercussions if they refuse to participate. In the following case, those mobilised for free labour ended up spending their day off in hiding:
Forestry workers received an order to carry out a subbotnik on 18th May 2019, which is celebrated as the Day of the Constitution and State Flag in Turkmenistan, for the purpose of tidying up greenery in an area close to the Constitution monument on the outskirts of Ashgabat. However, as the workers arrived at the spot early in the morning, security service officials ordered them to hide behind the trees, rather than carrying out any work as the president’s cortege was expected to pass by on a nearby highway on its way to the Constitution monument, where a ceremony was due to take place with the president’s participation. In this way, the security services apparently wanted to ensure that the president would not see the workers through the car window. The workers were only allowed to leave their place of hiding and go home after several hours, when the president’s cortege had driven by.
Fight against “religious extremism”
The Turkmen RFE/RL service reported that few people in Turkmenistan were fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which this year took place from early May to early June 2019. Residents with whom the service’s correspondents spoke suggested that many people were afraid of being branded as “extremists” for observing the fast. For this reason, they chose not to fast or did not speak publicly about it. The state-controlled Muslim Board made no public announcement about Ramadan, neither did state-controlled media mention it.
The authorities of Turkmenistan seriously restrict religious activities and have recently stepped up efforts to prevent visible expressions of the practice of Islam, allegedly for the purpose of fighting against “religious extremism”. As covered in our last update, law enforcement authorities have summoned people who attend mosques or otherwise actively practice Islam for questioning and detained young men wearing beards, demanding that they shave them off.
At the same time, according to the Turkmen RFE/RL service, imams at mosques supervised by the Muslim Board continue to praise the president during Friday prayers, calling on believers to love him and their home country. At an Ashgabat mosque attended by the service’s correspondent in mid-May 2019, the imam went even further by praying for punishment for the president’s enemies.
"… в адрес врагов президента" and you know, who you are. На пятничной молитве в Ашхабаде звучат проповеди с проклятиями в адрес врагов президента https://t.co/lZussIwMMc
— Bruce Pannier (@BrucePannier) May 20, 2019