This update covers developments relating to the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Turkmenistan from January to May 2023. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have prepared it as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has retained significant influence after handing over the presidency to his son, Serdar Berdymukhamedov in a staged transfer of power in 2022. The ex-president’s influence was further strengthened in January 2023, as the People’s Council headed by him was transformed from being the upper house of parliament into a separate institution designated as the highest body of power in the country. The ex-president was also granted the title of “National Leader of the Turkmen People”. These developments further reinforced the concentration of power in the hands of the Berdymukhamedov family. Parliamentary elections to the new unicameral parliament held in March 2023 were unfree and unfair, similar to all previous elections held in the country.
Turkmenistan’s former president has shoved his son aside to take new powers, weakening the presidency and threatening a future crisis of legitimacy. Our weekly briefing. https://t.co/vmbQ57H3bW
— Eurasianet (@eurasianet) January 24, 2023
While the state-owned monopoly provider of broadband internet access announced that it was increasing the speed of internet connections on offer as of March 2023, internet speed still remained slow compared to international standards and the increased speed came with higher user fees. Internet censorship remained widespread. A recent, unprecedented large-scale study of internet censorship in Turkmenistan carried out by a team of computer scientists confirmed the systematic nature of internet censorship in the country: it found that over 122,000 of the tested domains were blocked.
When reviewing Turkmenistan’s human rights record in March 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Committee raised serious concerns about the pattern of politically motivated persecution in the country. It called for the release of several people imprisoned in apparent retaliation for their peaceful exercise of their fundamental freedoms, including journalist Nurgeldy Khalykov, civil society activist Murat Dushemov and human rights activist Mansur Mingelov. In a joint appeal from prison, published in May 2023, Khalykov, Dushemov and two others believed to have been convicted on politically motivated grounds who are serving their sentences in the same prison facility, drew attention to their plight and requested assistance from the United Nations representation in Turkmenistan.
The Turkmenistani authorities also continued to target outspoken activists based in Turkey. In a highly alarming case, blogger Farhat Meimankulyiev (aka Durdyiev) was reportedly detained by Turkish police at the request of Turkmenistan’s consulate in Istanbul and deported to Turkmenistan on 20th May 2023. The blogger, known for his criticism of the Turkmenistani authorities on YouTube, is at serious risk of politically motivated imprisonment and torture in Turkmenistan. At the time of writing, no further information about his fate upon deportation is available.
There were also new reports of cases in which the authorities attempted to put pressure on Turkey-based activists through their relatives in Turkmenistan. For example, activist Dursoltan Taganova reported that security service officials had questioned her 12-year-old son and attempted to recruit him as an informant, while Khamida Babadzhanova reported that her 73-year-old mother had been denied the right to travel abroad in apparent retaliation for the activist’s criticism of the government.
A visa regime for citizens of Turkmenistan, which was introduced by the Turkish government at the Turkmenistani government’s request in autumn 2022, was widely perceived as an attempt by the government to limit travel to Turkey and prevent expressions of discontent among citizens in this country, which has a large Turkmenistani migrant community. This impression was strengthened by reports indicating that people wishing to obtain visas to travel to Turkey were required to provide the contacts of state employees who could guarantee that they would return and to sign written statements pledging not to participate in any protests or online discussions critical of the Turkmenistani government while in Turkey.
During the reporting period, there was an increasing number of reports of spontaneous protests held by citizens inside Turkmenistan to voice grievances about socio-economic hardships, corruption, and other problems facing them. The authorities responded, on the one hand, by detaining and threatening protesters and, on the other hand, by pledging to address concerns raised to prevent further protests.
The practice of forcible mass mobilisation of public sector employees and other residents for state-organised regime-praising events continued. The authorities reportedly attempted to control women’s appearance in this context, with local officials announcing new practices according to which women mobilised for mass events should wear national-style dresses and headscarves and be below the age of 40.
As the human rights situation in Turkmenistan remained highly repressive, the country received new bottom ratings in international freedom surveys, such as the annual Freedom in the World survey, where it fared worse than North Korea.
During its review of Turkmenistan’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Committee issued important conclusions and recommendations on human rights protection in the country, including the freedoms of expression, association and assembly. It will be of key importance for Turkmenistan’s international partners to follow up on the government’s implementation of the Committee’s recommendations.
New bottom ratings in international surveys
Because of the repressive situation in the country, Turkmenistan continues to feature at the bottom of international surveys measuring the level of freedoms in different countries. In the annual Freedom in the World survey, published by Freedom House in March 2023, Turkmenistan was again included among ‘’the worst of the worst’’, with a total of two scores on a scale from 0 to 100 where 0 represents the lowest and 100 the highest level of freedom. Only Syria, South Sudan and Tibet fared worse, with one score each. In the global Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Borders in May 2023, Turkmenistan was ranked 176 out of 180.
Turkmenistan edges out North Korea in Freedom House’s Worst of the Worst list. https://t.co/y6tjox7L8y
— Eurasianet (@eurasianet) March 14, 2023
Concentration of powers further reinforced and new unfree elections
As covered before, in March 2022, Turkmenistan saw an orchestrated transfer of power when Serdar Berdymukhamedov assumed the presidency after his father Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, following elections that were manifestly unfree and unfair. After stepping down as president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov remained a powerful actor, officially holding the position as chair of the People’s Council, the upper house of parliament. In January 2023, the ex-president’s influence, as well as the concentration of power in the country were further strengthened as Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was bestowed the title of “National Leader of the Turkmen People” and the People’s Council headed by him was re-transformed into a separate entity. In accordance with constitutional amendments adopted, the People’s Council is now the highest body of power in the country with the right to determine both domestic and foreign policies.
On 26th March 2023, early elections were held to select members of the new, unicameral parliament. TIHR’s sources reported a low level of interest and engagement in the elections among residents. However, according to official information, the voter turnout was over 91 percent. The 125 elected deputies included representatives of the country’s three registered political parties, all of which are pro-government, as well as members of citizen groups.
Human Rights Committee issues important conclusions and recommendations
On 1st to 2nd March 2023, the UN Human Rights Committee reviewed Turkmenistan’s third periodic report on the country’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a core human rights treaty. As human rights NGOs do not have any opportunities to engage directly with the government, the public interactive dialogue that the Committee held with the Turkmenistani government as part of the review was a rare opportunity for NGO representatives to hear government officials address human rights issues.
During the review, the Human Rights Committee raised serious concerns about the protection of fundamental freedoms in the country and issued important recommendations on such issues. Among others, the Committee voiced concerns about the absence of uncensored and unhindered access to various sources of information, including through disproportionate limitations on online content and social networks; the widespread practice of persecution of civil society representatives and their relatives, both in Turkmenistan and abroad; and patterns of politically motivated trials held behind closed doors, secret detention, torture and enforced disappearances, as well as the failure to ensure accountability for such violations. The Committee also raised concerns about the lack of registered CSOs working on human rights issues in the country, and reports of forced participation in state-sponsored mass gatherings.
IPHR and TIHR had submitted a joint report as input for the review, documenting key issues of concern regarding Turkmenistan’s compliance with the ICCPR. TIHR’s head Farid Tukhbatullin also participated in NGO briefings with Committee members in Geneva ahead of the review.
🇹🇲This week the UN Human Rights Committee will examine Turkmenistan’s human rights record in Geneva. Here are key issues we hope to see raised at this important review: https://t.co/QyJCg659cq
— IPHR (@IPHR) February 27, 2023
As covered before, internet access in Turkmenistan is slow and expensive compared to international standards. The state-owned Turkmen Telecom, the monopoly provider of broadband internet access, announced that it was increasing the speed of the internet connections it offers as of 1st March 2023. Thus, the minimum speed of its connections was increased from 256 kbps to 1 Mbps and the maximum speed from 2 to 6 Mbps. The new maximum speed is still slow compared to global standards. For example, in April 2023, the average broadband download speed worldwide was 80 Mbps (or 13 times the new maximum speed in Turkmenistan) according to the Speedtest Global Index. Turkmenistan has consistently featured at the bottom end of this global ranking: in April 2023, the only countries with a lower average broadband speed than Turkmenistan were Syria, Afghanistan and Cuba. According to TIHR’s information, interruptions to internet access are also common in the country. For example, shortly after the announced changes to internet speed by the Turkmen Telecom, internet users in Ashgabat reported experiencing a series of interruptions in internet access.
At the same time, the new faster connections announced by the state company in March 2023 came with increased costs. The monthly costs for internet connections at the minimum speed increased from 100 to 150 manat (around 38 EUR at the official exchange rate) and the connections at the maximum speed from 200 to 280 manat (around 70 EUR). These rates constitute a significant expense for customers given the income level in the country, where the official minimum monthly salary was set at 1160 manat (around 290 EUR) for 2023.
In addition to problems with speed and affordability, internet access is also heavily restricted in Turkmenistan and a large number of social media networks, messenger apps, news sites and other online resources have been arbitrarily blocked. In April 2023, Global Voices published an article about a recent, unprecedented, large-scale study of internet censorship in Turkmenistan carried out by a team of computer scientists from the University of Chicago and the University of Maryland in the United States. Using a methodology that allowed them to measure censorship from outside Turkmenistan, without any need to rely on local vantage points or volunteers, the team of scientists tested a total of 15.5 million domains and found that over 122,000 of them were blocked. Commenting on the findings, one of the researchers told Global Voices that the authorities in Turkmenistan ‘’block way more than people may have thought before’’, using different blocking lists and rules. He noted that the scale of internet censorship in Turkmenistan is comparable to that in China, where 300,000 domains were found to be blocked. The authors of the study also explored strategies for evading internet censorship in Turkmenistan and made these strategies publicly available.
Sharing this interview on the results of the first and only large scale study of internet censorship in Turkmenistan, which reaches over 122,000 domains. Truly unprecedented research findings. https://t.co/IpPO2KO39r via @https://twitter.com/noorofureyes
— Nurbek Bekmurzaev (@noorofureyes) April 12, 2023
According to the Netherlands-based Turkmen News, the number of blocked sites has continued to increase in Turkmenistan in recent months. According to its sources, as many as three billion, or three quarters of all IP addresses existing in the world had been blocked in the country as of April 2023.
As covered before, in December 2022, Turkmenistan’s state media reported that a government working commission had been established to develop a ‘’Concept for the formation of a national digital network, not linked to the internet’’. During the reporting period, there was no news about the work of this commission, but concerns remained that the authorities might seek to introduce a national state-controlled network for the purpose of further restricting internet use in the country.
Official number of registered CSOs
At the Human Rights Committee’s review of Turkmenistan’s implementation of the ICCPR in March 2023, the government delegation provided information on the number of public associations that are currently registered in the country. It stated that a total of 135 organisations are registered, out of which more than 40 percent (58) are sports associations, while the rest deal with economic, creative, scientific, ecological, disability and other issues. This is a very low number of public associations for a country which officially has more than six million residents. Also, the operating space for public associations remains restrictive and, as previously, no independent organisation working on human rights issues is registered or able to work openly in the country. In its concluding observations from the review of Turkmenistan, the Human Rights Committee expressed concerns about the apparent lack of registered CSOs working on human rights issues and called on the government to bring its legislation governing CSOs in line with the ICCPR and to ensure that such legislation is not used to control or infringe the operations of CSOs.
#UN #HRCttee 🇺🇳 questions #TURKMENISTAN 🇹🇲on the complete lack of CIVIC SPACE in the country. @MarciaVJKRAN1 mentions that NO independent NGOs are able to work openly in the country and access to the Ombudsperson is hampered for victims of human rights violations @UN_Turkmenistan
— CCPR Centre (@CCPR_Centre) March 1, 2023
Persecution of civil society representatives at home and abroad
As covered in the previous update, in December 2022, two people (doctor Khursanai Ismatullaeva and lawyer Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev) believed to have been imprisoned on politically motivated charges in retaliation for their civic engagement were pardoned and released. Others imprisoned on similar grounds currently remain behind bars in Turkmenistan. When examining Turkmenistan’s compliance with the ICCPR at its session in Geneva in March 2023, the UN Human Rights Committee raised particular concerns about the cases of imprisoned journalist Nurgeldy Khalykov, civil society activist Murat Dushemov and human rights activist Mansur Mingelov and called for their release. When asked about these cases during its interactive dialogue with the Committee, the government delegation also promised to ‘’consider’’ their releases.
In May 2023, an exile-based journalist made public a joint appeal to the UN representation in Turkmenistan signed by Nurgeldy Khalykov, Murat Dushemov and two other individuals believed to have been convicted on politically motivated grounds (Allamyrat Korkhanov and Murat Ovezov) who are all serving their sentences in the same prison facility in Lebap region. In the appeal, the four prisoners stated that they have been unlawfully imprisoned, subjected to physical and psychological pressure, and denied the right to meetings and phone calls with relatives while in prison. They requested assistance from the UN representation to end what they called the ‘’lawlessness’’ facing them.
On May 15 four #Turkmen political prisoners — Allamurat Korhanov, Murat Dushemov, Nurgeldi #Halykov, and Murat Ovezov — wrote a letter to @UN_Turkmenistan asking to meet UN employees in personhttps://t.co/a2Is62CFoT
— turkmen.news (@adalatseeker) May 23, 2023
As covered before, the Turkmenistani authorities have also gone after outspoken activists based abroad, above all in Turkey, including by seeking their detention and return to Turkmenistan. This alarming case forms part of this pattern:
- On 19th May 2023, Turkey-based blogger Farhat Meimankulyiev (aka Durdyiev), who has vocally criticised the Turkmenistani authorities on YouTube, was reportedly detained in Istanbul at the request of Turkmenistan’s consulate. After first being taken to a local police station, he was subsequently transferred to a deportation centre, as documented by human rights defenders. The following day, he was deported to Turkmenistan. While the formal reason for his deportation was a migration violation, Meimankulyiev is at serious risk of politically motivated arrest, imprisonment and torture in Turkmenistan because of his previous criticism of the authorities. The blogger has also previously been subjected to harassment, including by being arbitrarily detained at the premises of Turkmenistan’s consulate in Istanbul in connection with a planned protest in August 2021. While held there, he was reportedly ill-treated and pressured to apologise for posting videos critical of the regime.
Very worrying news that another outspoken Turkmenistani activist has been detained in Turkey and is facing the threat of being forcibly returned to Turkmenistan. https://t.co/OstNAvlJxX
— IPHR (@IPHR) May 23, 2023
While any public expressions of discontent risk persecution in Turkmenistan, residents occasionally hold spontaneous protests to voice grievances about issues affecting their everyday lives. The authorities typically seek to suppress such protests by using tactics of, on the one hand, intimidation and, on the other hand, persuasion by making admissions on the issues raised. During the reporting period, there were several new reports of spontaneous protests, which seemed to indicate an increase in the level of discontent among residents because of difficulties related to the protracted economic crisis in the country, widespread corruption, ineffective action of state bodies and other problems facing them.
- In May 2023, TIHR learned about a case in which a group of farmers from the Mary region travelled to Ashgabat to hand over a complaint about problems in the state-led cotton production to the presidential administration after previously submitting appeals to various state bodies to no avail. However, instead of being received by officials from the presidential administration, the farmers were reportedly detained by police and taken to a local police station where they were required to provide their contact information and warned that they might face criminal charges if they again attempt to gain access to the presidential administration. Following this, they were sent back home.
- According to TIHR’s information, on 28th April 2023, around 100 residents gathered outside the local administration in the Täze ýap agricultural community in the Kunya-urgench district of Dashoguz region, expressing resentment that they had not been able to buy rationed amounts of flour and oil at state subsidised prices for March and April. Because of the deficit of basic food products, rationing has become common in state-run stores in the last few years. Later the same day, some 180 people gathered in the nearby agricultural community of Zaman to express similar demands and blocked the road leading to Kunya-urgench to back up their demands. Police arrived, but the protesters did not disperse until a group of district officials had shown up and promised to ensure that flour and oil were delivered to the communities.
- As reported by the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), in mid-April 2023, residents in the city of Kaka in Ahal region protested against the increase in food prices in local state-run stores, in particular a sudden almost two-fold increase in the price of bread. Dozens of people turned to the city administration to complain that many people could no longer afford to buy bread. As a result of the outpouring of complaints, and apparently fearing growing discontent, local authorities re-instated the previous price of bread.
- The Turkmen service of RFE/RL, Radio Azatlyk also reported about an incident on 10th April 2023, when about 20 people started loudly protesting in a migration service office in Mary region, expressing resentment about corrupt practices in the process of issuing new passports for travel abroad. Migration service officials promptly called the police, who, according to eye witnesses, detained at least 10 people. Radio Azatlyk was not able to clarify the fate of those detained. However, in addition to detaining some of the protesters, the authorities also initiated an inspection of the activities of the migration service in the region because of the discontent expressed. As a result, the issuance of passports was temporarily suspended.
- According to information from the Netherlands-based organisation Turkmen News, on 6th March 2023, a group of around 30 women gathered in front of the presidential palace in Ashgabat. They were hoping to be able to convey their concerns to the president on a number of issues, including the lack of effective measures by authorities to investigate and address criminal actions to which they and their relatives had been subjected. However, although the women were first promised that the prosecutor general would receive them (as the president was said to be busy), they were soon detained by police and taken to a local police station, where they were held for several hours, questioned and made to write explanatory statements. Finally, they were sent back to their homes in different parts of the country.
Forced mobilisation for state-organised events
The Turkmenistani authorities continue to mobilise public sector employees, students and other citizens for participation in state-organised mass events, used for state propaganda purposes, at the threat of dismissal, loss of benefits and other repercussions. The practice of forced mobilisation violates people’s right to voluntary participation in assemblies, which is a key element of the right to freedom of assembly. In its concluding observations on Turkmenistan’s compliance with the ICCPR, issued in March 2023, the Human Rights Committee reiterated its concern about this practice.
Women are particularly affected by forcible mobilisation for state-organised mass events as they make up the majority of those working in the public sector. At the same time, the authorities have attempted to control women’s appearance in the context of mass events as part of a broader trend of reinforced restrictions on women’s rights in the country, documented in a recent TIHR-IPHR submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. As reported by the Turkmen service of RFE/RL, at a meeting held in the city of Turkmenabat in early 2023 to discuss state-organised mass events planned for the year, local officials announced new requirements that women participating in mass events should wear long national-style dresses and headscarves and only women below the age of 40 should be mobilised.
This is one example of mass mobilisation from the reporting period:
- According to TIHR’s information, public sector employees and students were mobilised to participate in official bicycle events organised in different parts of Turkmenistan on the occasion of World Health Day, marked on 7th April 2023. The participants in the event in Ashgabat, which was led by President Serdar Berdymukhamedov, were reportedly required to show up at 4 o’clock in the morning, bringing their own bikes and dressed in sports clothes. Among those mobilised were people who were fasting during the month of Ramadan and thus were not allowed to eat or drink anything during daytime.
The authorities have also continued to mobilise public sector employees for so-called subbotniki, or days of free public labour. For example, in-mid March 2023, hundreds of public sector employees were mobilised to plant trees.