Human rights situation still appalling in post-election Turkmenistan

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The CIVICUS Monitor has published the following new update on the situation in Turkmenistan on the basis of information and analysis provided by the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR): 

As previously presented on the CIVICUS Monitor, Turkmenistan is known as one of the most repressive states in the world. Even when faced with intense international scrutiny and criticism, the government continues to limit the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression as well as close off civic space and restrict political opposition.

Presidential Elections

On 12th February 2017, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was re-elected with 97.7 percent of the vote in his favour. There were eight other candidates, including representatives of the two political parties that have been set up since the law on political parties was adopted in 2012; however, no one challenged the incumbent’s policies and position. Moreover, the repressive environment in the country did not allow for any substantive debate over the issues. As reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, no election in Turkmenistan has been declared free and fair by independent international observers.

Turkmenistan’s new constitution, which was adopted in September 2016, does not place any limitations on how long the current president can stay in power. In addition, amendments to the Law on the President approved before the February 2017 elections foresee a transition of power only in the event that the president is no longer able to fulfil his responsibilities.

There is a growing cult of personality around President Berdymukhammedov, similar to that of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. His portraits are currently displayed on billboards across the country; a giant gold statue of him stands in the capital; and his writings are now compulsory reading for schoolchildren. Prior to the elections, the president toured the country handing out gifts to voters, even though it is illegal for candidates to offer financial or material incentives to the electorate.

In a joint statement, CIVICUS, IPHR and TIHR affirmed that the February 2017 election was conducted in an environment of increasing pressure on those who criticise the current regime and socio-economic situation in the country.

Association

From 8th to 9th March 2017, the UN Human Rights Committee examined Turkmenistan’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a core international human rights treaty. UN human rights reviews, which are held publicly, represent a unique opportunity for the international community to gain some more insight into the repressive policies of Turkmenistan’s government. The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) submitted an alternative report to the Committee, which provided clear evidence of the lack of any meaningful progress to improve respect for fundamental freedoms since the Committee first reviewed the country in 2012. In turn, Committee members raised concerns on key issues, including:

  • the lack of independent media;
  • restrictive conditions on the formation and operation of associations;
  • the ongoing intimidation and harassment of foreign media correspondents, civil society activists and dissidents;
  • enforced disappearances or imprisonment of government opponents; and
  • unfair and non-transparent judicial processes.

Peaceful Assembly

As reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, public protests are rarely held in Turkmenistan due to the constant threat of a crackdown by the authorities. Only occasional protests on socio-economic issues have taken place in recent years.

Recent examples of such protests include:

  • The Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that more than 40 women had gathered in Ashgabat’s “8 March” area on 21st February 2017 to protest the demolition of private houses in the district. The women called upon the local authorities to give them alternative housing or land. According to the protesters, local officials refused to receive their applications for alternative housing, arguing that they did not have legally valid documents proving their place of residence. Many of the women have lived in their houses for decades. TIHR and IPHR have drawn attention to the problem of evictions taking place without due legal safeguards or the provision of adequate, alternative housing or compensation. The government has been demolishing and reconstructing parts of the capital city to prepare for the Asian Games to be held in September 2017, thereby increasing the number of cases of evictions.

In addition, the Turkmen authorities continue forced mobilisation of citizens for various public events:

  • On 18 March 2017, the government declared a national subbotnik – day of unpaid labour – which is a practice dating back to the Soviet era. On that day, state employees, university students, schoolchildren and pensioners were required to plant trees or carry out other tasks in their communities; those daring to disobey faced the threat of being dismissed or having their benefits reduced. The President personally took part in the subbotnik, which also featured festivities such as dancing and singing performances.

Expression

All media outlets in Turkmenistan are tightly controlled and access to foreign sources of information is highly restricted. The authorities continue to arbitrarily dismantle private satellite dishes, arguing that they spoil the outer appearance of apartment buildings. However, the real reason behind these measures appears to be to prevent citizens from using satellite dishes to access foreign channels that broadcast programs reporting critically on Turkmenistan, including the Prague-based Turkmen service of RFE/RL. In a recent example documented by TIHR in mid-March 2017, local authorities authorised workers to tear down satellite dishes installed on residential buildings in the 11th micro district of the capital. While residents have been offered cable or internet protocol television (IPTV) instead of satellite dishes, these options are controlled by the government.

The government views media as a mechanism to highlight the regime’s achievements and to maintain the status quo. In a recent speech, President Berdymukhammedov vowed to ensure that national TV broadcasts “spotlight positive changes” and “popularise the achievements of the country”.

During the UN Human Rights Committee’s review of Turkmenistan in March 2017, the Turkmenistan delegation stated that it “provides assistance” to foreign journalists accredited in the country “to ensure objective coverage”. According to official information, 25 journalists are currently accredited in Turkmenistan, but many of them are not based in the country but rather in cities such as Moscow, Almaty, Tashkent and Istanbul.

State-controlled media have reported that visitors to the upcoming Asian Games in Ashgabat will have access to high-quality and high-speed internet during these competitions. However, for citizens of the country, internet access remains restricted and internet speed is slow and prices high, compared to global standards. Many news and other websites with independent information on developments in the country are blocked.

Local journalists who contribute to RFE/RL and other foreign media outlets, civil society activists and other critical voices are under constant threat of intimidation and harassment.

In December 2016, RFE/RL correspondent, Hudaiberdi Allashov, and his mother were detained in the Dashoguz region and charged with possession of chewing tobacco, an illegal but commonly used substance in Turkmenistan. After being held in detention for two and a half months, they were both convicted by a local court in mid-February 2017 and given three-year suspended prison sentences, after which they were released. Although Allashov and his mother were freed, they remain under the threat of imprisonment should they be found in violation of the conditions of their suspended sentences. According to RFE/RL, they were placed under surveillance and prevented from using any communications tools upon their release. Moreover, Hudaiberdi Allashov was allegedly subjected to ill-treatment during detention – allegations that should be promptly and impartially investigated and those responsible brought to justice.

Another journalist, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, who worked with RFE/RL and the Netherlands-based Alternative Turkmenistan News, remains in prison on charges of possessing illegal drugs. When the UN Human Rights Committee in March 2017 inquired about his case, the Turkmenistan government delegation described him as “psychologically unbalanced” and insisted that he “lacks education and professionalism” and therefore cannot be considered a real journalist.

 

The fate of dozens of individuals imprisoned on politically-motivated grounds, including those convicted after the alleged assassination attempt on former President Niyazov in 2012, remains unknown to this day. Information obtained by TIHR and Turkmenistan’s Independent Lawyers Association, a Netherlands-based NGO, shows that former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov and several others may have been victims of extrajudicial killings when Niyazov was still in power. Turkmenistan’s government has failed to answer questions from international human rights bodies about Shikhmuradov’s fate. The authorities have not complied with the UN Human Rights Committee’s 2014 decision on the case, which called for Shikhmuradov’s immediate release, if he is still being detained, or the release of his body to his family, in the event of his death.

Earlier in 2017, reports surfaced that Tirkish Tyrmyev, another former top official who was imprisoned after falling out of favour with Niyazov, died after spending almost 15 years behind bars. The European Union and several governments called upon the authorities in Turkmenistan to thoroughly investigate the circumstances of his death and the allegations that he was subjected to torture.

Image featured with post: nathan.groth / CC BY