Turkmenistan: No end to repression after the Asian Games

Turkmenistan hosted the fifth Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, or the so-called Asiada, in its capital Ashgabat from 17th to 27th September 2017. In the context of these games, which took place against the backdrop of a serious economic crisis in Turkmenistan, the government further stepped up measures to stifle criticism and prevent the dissemination of information challenging government propaganda. Although the games are now over, and foreign guests have left the country, this pattern continues, as detailed below.

This current update covers developments affecting freedom of expression, assembly and association in Turkmenistan from September to November 2017. It has been prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) based on TIHR’s monitoring of the situation in the country.


Restrictions facing foreign journalists covering the Asiada

As covered in our last report, some foreign journalists who initially got the green light to cover the Asiada had their accreditation revoked shortly before the start of the games. Other journalists representing media outlets that the authorities feared would provide negative coverage were not granted accreditation in the first place. Those journalists who were accredited and allowed to travel to Turkmenistan for the Asiada faced various restrictions.

Deutsche Welle reported that foreign media outlets present during the games had to sign a contract with a requirement not to provide any coverage critical of the organisers, the games or specific individuals in order to be allowed to broadcast the competition. Those that did not sign such a contract were granted more limited accreditation without the right to broadcast the games as such.

Foreign journalists were also required to be accompanied by guides wherever they went and they were closely monitored. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), each journalist was allocated two guides, who had been instructed to report to national security services about their assignment three times a day. The guides were only allowed to take the journalists to places that had been pre-approved by the authorities.

Despite the restrictions and surveillance, some foreign journalists were able to obtain sufficient information and footage for stories providing a rare look at real life inside the closed country. For example, Germany’s public ARD broadcaster and France 24 broadcasted documentaries based on reporting by journalists present during the games that highlight the serious human rights situation in Turkmenistan. Journalists from ARD said that they were intimidated and threatened with deportation by security services when they tried to meet with a local human rights defender. As a result, they had to cancel the meeting.

Turkmenistan rated among top-five most expensive countries for internet access

The authorities provided Asiada visitors with high-speed and uncensored internet access. However, as TIHR and IPHR have reported before, internet access remains restricted and expensive for residents of Turkmenistan. A recent study carried out by a Russia-based analytical team found that Turkmenistan is among the five most expensive countries in the world in terms of internet access. According to the study, unlimited internet access costs on average 171 USD a month in Turkmenistan, compared to an average of 44 USD a month in the 100 countries studied. Aside from Turkmenistan, the other countries with the highest rates included Congo, Angola, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Campaign against satellite dishes continues

The authorities continue their arbitrary campaign to dismantle private satellite dishes, which are used to access foreign TV and radio channels. Ashgabat residents were hoping that restrictive measures such as these would decrease after end of the Asiada. However, according to TIHR’s information, worker teams on trucks equipped with mobile cranes were dispatched in the capital in late September 2017 to identify and remove remaining satellite dishes. The workers dismantled satellite dishes without prior warning to those affected and even in cases when the owners were not at home, the workers went ahead with their work.

New cases of intimidation and harassment of critical voices

In connection with the Asiada, as well as the ongoing economic crisis that the authorities are trying to cover up, pressure on critical voices has further increased in Turkmenistan. In a statement issued in early November, TIHR, IPHR, the Prague-based group “Rights and Freedoms of the Citizens of Turkmenistan” and Memorial Human Rights Centre drew attention to intimidation and harassment recently targeting the following individuals:

  • On the night of 28th to 29th October 2017, unknown perpetrators threw stones and bricks at the windows of the apartment of Khalida Izbastinova, the 76-year-old mother of TIHR’s director who lives in the city of Dashoguz. While several windows broke, she fortunately did not suffer any physical injuries but was shaken by the incident and an ambulance had to be called for her. Police opened an investigation into incident and questioned neighbours but the investigation has not produced any results so far. TIHR and IPHR believe that the attack was aimed at putting pressure on TIHR’s director Farid Tuhbatullin because of his human rights work and TIHR’s uncensored coverage of developments in Turkmenistan. Tuhbatullin has also previously received threats and his relatives, including his mother have been subjected to intimidation and surveillance. As a further form of pressure, articles posted on a pro-government site suggested that Tuhbatullin and his family had themselves staged the attack to attract attention.

  • A group of national security service officials visited Galina Vertyakova, known for her social media posts critical of government policies, in her Ashgabat home on 22nd October 2017. They accused her of disseminating “false” information about the situation in the country and threatened her, saying that she could easily be killed. Last year Vertyakova was convicted and held in prison for two months on charges of allegedly extorting a house management official. Prior to this, she had spoken out against an arbitrary government order requiring residents of the capital to dim their windows.

  • Animal rights defender Galina Kucherenko, who has used social media to protest the brutal killing of stray animals in Ashgabat, has recently been subjected to ongoing surveillance, with a car parked outside her home keeping track of her movements. On 15th November 2017, a police officer called her and told her that a complaint had been filed against her and demanded that she appear at the police station. Kucherenko refused to agree. Shortly after the end of the phone call, several unknown people buzzed her door and tried to get into her apartment. They insisted that she sign a police summons. When the activist refused to open the door and said that she would not sign anything, they threatened her that she may be imprisoned. She has also received previous threats and been attacked on social media because of her criticism of the authorities.
  • As covered in the previous report, in August 2017 Nataliya Shabunts, an Ashgabat-based civil society activist who cooperates with TIHR, was assaulted in the street by a group of women who yelled racist slurs at her and told her to leave Turkmenistan. Similar to the two women activists mentioned above, she has also been subjected to ongoing surveillance and her internet access has been restricted.

  • RFE/RL correspondent Soltan Achilova is likewise under constant surveillance and her internet and mobile phone access has been blocked. As reported before, she was repeatedly attacked in July 2017 by unknown assailants who threatened her and prevented her from taking photos. On 14th November, she was again insulted and threatened by unknown people. Her children have also faced harassment, which she spoke about when interviewed by France 24. In April this year, unknown perpetrators broke the windows of the car of her disabled son, as witnessed by neighbours, which has prevented him from being able to get around in the vehicle. Due to serious threats received, Achilova temporarily left Turkmenistan for the period of the Asiada but later returned.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests over increased kindergarten fees

Cuts and restrictions introduced by the authorities due to the current economic downturn have caused resentment among citizens. In October 2017, TIHR reported on protests against the sudden, tenfold increase in kindergarten fees in the Dashoguz region. On 10th October 2017, some 200 people gathered outside the Dashoguz city administration to protest the increasing fees, which it could prove difficult, if not impossible, for many families to pay. Similar spontaneous protests involving dozens of people were held in other cities of the region. Most of the protesters were women, some of whom were accompanied by their children. According to TIHR, parents also filed thousands of complaints against the decision with different state bodies, often encouraged to do so by kindergarten employees who were unhappy about the increase in fees, fearing that it would result in staff layoffs.

While the street protests were not dispersed by police, authorities used other tactics to cut short expressions of discontent over the steep increase in kindergarten fees. On 17th October, the Dashoguz Regional Education Department summoned kindergarten representatives from across the region to a meeting, where the head of the department demanded that they ensure that parents stop submitting complaints. In addition, RFE/RL reported that an education official was detained following the protest outside the Dashoguz city administration on 10th October because he had advised the protesters to complain to the authorities. He was threatened with a criminal investigation but was subsequently released.

New cases of mass mobilisation of residents

The Turkmenistani authorities continue the practice of forcible mass mobilisations of residents for government-organised events, in violation of the fundamental principle of voluntary participation in assemblies. As covered in the previous Monitor report and according to TIHR’s information, thousands of people were forcibly mobilised to attend Asiada ceremonies and competitions, as well as to participate in intense and lengthy rehearsals for this purpose.

In one case, a tragic incident took place during the rehearsals for the closing ceremony of the games. According to RFE/RL, a 21-year-old university student died during the rehearsals held on 26th September, after he and others engaged as spectators were required to spend hours in the hot sun on the audience stand without being allowed to leave even to use the restroom. The student died of heart failure, apparently without having been granted timely emergency medical assistance. A representative of the organisational committee of the games confidentially told RFE/RL that they had been ordered not to disclose information about the incident.

RFE/RL also reported on another case when dozens of people were injured during an evacuation exercise held during a rehearsal for the games. Due to a false bomb alert, panic broke out among the rehearsal participants, who started pushing their way ahead to get out of the arena. As a result, about 100 people were injured and some 40 had to be hospitalised.

TIHR has also reported about several other recent cases of forcible mass mobilisation of residents. For example, schoolchildren, students and state employees were mobilised for various festive events held during the celebration of Turkmenistan’s independence on 26th to 27th October 2017. TIHR learned that children who were engaged were asked to provide information about their relatives going back three generations, apparently for the purpose of identifying and excluding children with “problematic elements” among their relatives (such as individuals with criminal convictions or dissident voices). Similar stigmatising checks were implemented in relation to individuals who were mobilised to attend the Asiada.

In October 2017, another so-called subbotnik, a day of unpaid labour, which is a practice dating back to the Soviet era was held under the oversight of the president. According to the state Turkmenistan Today news agency, close to 367,000 people were mobilised for this event across the country and some 418,000 trees were planted. As in the case of previous subbotnik events, people were pressured to participate under the threat of being dismissed or having benefits reduced.


Denial of registration and harassment of minority religious communities

As reported before on the Monitor, the new Law on Freedom of Religion and Religious Organisations adopted in Turkmenistan in 2016 prohibits the activities of unregistered religious communities and establishes strict registration requirements. Communities that already were registered when the law entered into force in April 2016 were required to re-register.

According to Forum 18, an organisation that monitors developments related to freedom of religion in the post-Soviet space, only two religious communities had been re-registered as of October 2017. Both are Protestant Christian communities. Forum 18 learned that the applications filed by many other religious groups have been returned due to “errors” that government officials have demanded be “corrected” before processing the re-registration requests. Small religious communities with less than 50 members are no longer eligible for registration under the 2016 law, and some communities such as independent Muslim groups, new Russian Orthodox communities, Protestant communities and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have been denied registration for years.

The implementation of the 2016 law allows for far-reaching state control of religious practices and has reinforced a pre-existing pattern of intimidation and harassment of minority religious communities in Turkmenistan. After reviewing the situation in the country in March 2017, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern that the legal framework “retains undue restrictions on freedom of religious belief such as the mandatory registration of religious organizations and obstacles to registration”. The Committee was also concerned about the

“denial of registration of religious minority communities, raids and confiscation of religious literature and intimidation, arrests and imprisonment of members of religious communities.”

Photo featured with post: american_rugbier/СС BY

*** The update was first published at the CIVICUS Monitor site. IPHR and TIHR are CIVICUS Monitor research partners. ***