Report: Turkmenistan crashing dissent ahead of elections

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International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and its Central Asian partners have begun cooperating with the CIVICUS alliance on the CIVICUS Monitor initiative, which is aimed at tracking civic space worldwide. A first update on Turkmenistan has now been posted on the CIVICUS Monitor site on the basis of information provided by IPHR and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), which monitors developments in this country with the help of an in-country network of activists. The update highlights current challenges ahead of the presidential elections that will take place in Turkmenistan on 12 February 2017. Below we re-post the update in the same format that it first appeared:

As Turkmenistan prepares to hold elections on 12th February, CIVICUS, the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPRH) and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) expose the reality facing citizens denied the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms and any say in how their country is run. This detailed report describes the state’s all-pervasive control over people’s ability to associate with one another, peacefully protest and criticise authority. Months ahead of elections, authorities began a concerted campaign of harassment against civil society activists and journalists, ensuring that only government supporters could form organisations and political parties and keeping a tight grip on protest rights. In the midst of such deep repression, the upcoming elections do little more than place the thinnest veneer of democracy on one of the world’s most autocratic regimes.

Association

Adopted in September 2016, Turkmenistan’s new constitution safeguards the right of citizens to establish associations (article 44) and provides that the state will ensure the “necessary conditions for the development of civil society” (article 17). However, in spite of these and other legal guarantees, the right to freedom of association is seriously restricted and the civil society environment is extremely repressive.

NGOS

The 2014 Law on Public Associations requires all associations to obtain mandatory state registration and sets out strict registration requirements, especially for nation-wide associations (which must have 400 members in order to obtain registration). The law also grants authorities wide powers to monitor and oversee the activities and finances of associations without adequate safeguards against abuse.

In practice, the Turkmenistani authorities continue to promote government-supported and controlled organisations, so-called GONGOs, including Soviet-area structures such as youth, women and veteran unions. According to information from Turkmenistan’s government, a total of only 118 public associations are currently registered in a country of five million residents. These do not include any NGOs addressing human rights or other politically sensitive issues. Such groups are not able to work openly in the country.

The few Turkmenistani human rights NGOs that are based in exile are subjected to pressure. Austria-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) has repeatedly been the target of website attacks, which it believes have been perpetrated by Turkmenistani security services in an attempt to obstruct their organisation’s independent coverage of developments in Turkmenistan. TIHR’s site is blocked in the country and only accessible through proxy servers. Articles published on pro-government sites have sought to reject information published by TIHR, which has attracted wide attention, and have discredited TIHR Chair Farid Tuhbatullin and his family members and colleagues. In the past year, Farid Tuhbatullin has repeatedly received threats against his person, forcing him to seek police protection at one point. TIHR has announced its readiness to engage in dialogue with the Turkmenistani authorities, but its offers have been ignored. (See below for more on harassment targeting a Turkmenistan-based TIHR contributor).

Political parties

Turkmenistan’s first-ever Law on Political Parties, adopted in January 2012, creates the legal basis for a multi-party system. Following the adoption of this law, two more political parties have emerged aside from the pre-existing presidential Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. The Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs was established in August 2012 and the Agrarian Party in September 2014. The process of creating the two new parties was carried out under the auspices of the presidential administration and individuals who are known loyalists to the president were recruited to chair them. The two parties do not represent any independent platforms or any genuine alternative to the ruling party.

While the two new political parties and several citizen initiative groups have formally filed candidates for the presidential elections scheduled for 12th February, none of these candidates challenges the policies of the incumbent president who is seeking re-election. No election held in Turkmenistan has been recognised as free and fair by independent, international observers.

Religious minorities

The new Law on Freedom of Religion and Religious Organizations, which was adopted in March 2016, prohibits the activities of unregistered religious communities and sets out strict registration requirements. Religious communities wishing to register must have at least 50 members and must pass an expert assessment of their religious beliefs. The new law also imposes serious restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, the importation and distribution of religious literature and other basic religious activities and provides for far-reaching state control of religious practice.

Religious minority communities are subjected to intimidation and harassment, including arbitrary denials of registration, raids on their meetings, confiscation of religious literature, detention and questioning, and arrest and imprisonment. The authorities have also recently stepped up efforts against so-called non-traditional Islamic groups, which has given rise to concerns that members of such communities may have been targeted for peacefully exercising their beliefs outside strict state controls. Purported followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen have allegedly been subjected to arbitrary arrests and torture and ill-treatment in recent months. In mid-November 2016, TIHR reported that 19 individuals accused of involvement in the Hizmet movement founded by Gülen were being held in a pre-trial detention facility in the city of Anau. According to TIHR’s information, they had been held without charge for over 50 days and subjected to beatings and other abusive treatment, including by being questioned and filmed after being forced to drink alcohol.

There is no civilian alternative to compulsory military service in Turkmenistan, and Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors continue to be prosecuted for refusing to serve in the army.

Peaceful Assembly

Turkmenistan’s new constitution also guarantees the right to freedom of assembly (article 43). Turkmenistan’s first-ever Law on Assemblies, which entered into force in July 2015, requires those who wish to organise assemblies to inform local authorities in advance and to agree the venue for the assemblies with them. At the same time, it grants local officials wide discretion to refuse to agree to assemblies on the grounds that the proposed venue is unsuitable. The law prohibits assemblies near a number of locations including government buildings, hospitals, schools and public transportation, as well as in “other places” deemed unsuitable. The law also states that assemblies, as a rule, should be held in venues specifically designated for this purpose. According to the law, only one-person pickets can be held without informing local authorities, and no other spontaneous assemblies are foreseen. It is prohibited to hold assemblies with foreign financial, material or other support.

Public assemblies are generally a rare occurrence in Turkmenistan because of the lack of awareness of citizens of their rights and the overhanging threat of reprisals for any criticism of government policies. In previous years, TIHR has reported about a number of incidents where citizens have carried out spontaneous protests on socio-economic issues affecting their everyday lives such as wage delays and arbitrary measures to dismantle private satellite dishes and air conditioners. Local authorities have typically responded to such protests by seeking to track down and warn the initiators, while also in some cases addressing the issues raised to prevent further protests. Against this background, there are reasons to fear that the new Law on Assemblies may be used to stifle spontaneous, peaceful protests, in particular in the context of the recently worsening economic situation in the country that appears to have made the authorities increasingly intolerant of any criticism (see more in the section on freedom of expression). Since the entry into force of the new law, TIHR has not received information about any spontaneous protests.

In a troubling practice that is contrary to the principle of voluntary participation in assemblies, the Turkmenistani authorities forcibly mass mobilise residents for events such as public holiday parades, welcoming ceremonies when the president visits different parts of the country, and the opening of new facilities. Among those mobilised are employees of state institutions, members of public associations, university students, schoolchildren and other residents. In addition to violating the right to freedom of assembly, this practice results in that those forced to participate miss out on studies and work. It also jeopardises their health and well-being since events and rehearsals are typically intense, lengthy and held in any weather. These are only a few recent examples of this practice.

Expression

Turkmenistan’s new Constitution also protects the right to freedom of expression (article 42), but does not provide any guarantees for media freedom, in spite of recommendations to this end by international experts. Turkmenistan’s 2012 Media Law prohibits censorship and provides that the state will guarantee media independence and pluralism. In its Human Rights Action Plan for 2016-2020, the Turkmenistani government has committed itself to granting everyone unobstructed access to the internet.

In practice, the free speech and media climate in Turkmenistan is extremely restrictive. In the well-known Global Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, Turkmenistan was ranked 178th of 180 countries in 2016, with only North Korea and Eritrea behind it.

There is no independent media in the country, and all national media outlets are tightly controlled by the authorities and used as platforms for government propaganda, including propaganda promoting the personality cult of the president. The dissemination of information that reflects negatively on the situation in the country is effectively subdued in state-controlled media. Turkmenistan’s Constitution provides that the president’s honour and dignity will be protected by law and the Criminal Code treats defamation of the president as an offense similar to those of attacks on his health and life, with slander of him punishable by up to five years in prison.

The government’s approach to using media as a tool for propaganda purposes was illustrated by a statement made by the president in August 2016. He then called for intensified cooperation with foreign media for the purpose of “actively and efficiently” promoting attention to “our impressive achievements” through these channels.

Access to foreign sources of information is currently seriously limited in Turkmenistan. The import of foreign newspapers is restricted and the authorities have repeatedly implemented arbitrary campaigns to dismantle private satellite dishes used to access foreign TV and radio channels, arguing that they spoil the outer appearance of apartment buildings. TIHR has documented such measures not only in the capital, but also in other parts of the country.

While the use of the internet has increased in Turkmenistan in the last few years, largely as a result of the growing mobile access, internet access remains restricted. Websites that publish independent information about developments in Turkmenistan, such as the sites of media and NGOs that cover the situation in the country are blocked. Access to social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and online communications apps such as WhatsApp and WeChat has also been restricted, and proxy sites used to circumvent censorship and access otherwise unavailable sites are regularly blocked.

The few local journalists who contribute to foreign media, in particular the Prague-based Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL, Radio Azatlyk), civil society activists and others who dare to openly criticise government policies in Turkmenistan are highly vulnerable to intimidation and harassment. Critical voices who have fled the country and now live in exile have also been targeted.

The situation has deteriorated further in the last few months in the context of the worsening economic situation in the country and the upcoming presidential elections on 12th February. In October 2016, the president called for measures to prevent the spread of “false” information on the internet during the Asian Indoor Games, a major sports event that will take place in Ashgabat in September 2017. His call appeared to trigger reinforced measures by law enforcement and security agencies against critical voices.

TIHR has received information about individuals who have been summoned by security services for taking part in social media discussions and warned to stop using these sites at the threat of arrests, travel bans, dismissal from their jobs and other repercussions. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has reported that authorities have sought to intimidate residents not to listen to its Turkmen service, including by holding “preventive” talks to this end and warning residents in houses with satellite dishes tuned into receive Radio Azatlyk.

In the last few months, the internet access of independent journalists and activists has also been arbitrarily restricted and they have increasingly been singled out for retaliatory measures. Major cases of concern include:

  • Civil society activist Nataliya Shabunts, who cooperates with TIHR and has not refrained from publicly criticising the situation in the country, has recently faced increasing pressure. Her internet connection stopped working as of October 2016, although she had made the necessary payments. Starting in November 2016, she has also been subjected to surveillance, with unknown people taking turns in keeping watch outside her Ashgabat home.
  • RFE/RL correspondent Hudaiberdi Allashov was detained in his home in the Dashoguz region on 3 December 2016 and charged with the possession of chewing tobacco, an unlawful but commonly used substance in Turkmenistan that is not known to previously have led to arrests. Allashov was allegedly subjected to torture and ill-treatment and coerced into “confessing” to possessing 11 kg of this substance. Allashov’s mother was also detained and is believed to be facing similar charges as her son. The RFE/RL has said that it considers the case against its correspondent to be part of a targeted campaign aimed at silencing its Turkmenistani service. There has been no information about Allashov since mid-December 2016.
  • Another RFE/RL correspondent, Ashgabat-based Soltan Achilova reported being repeatedly subjected to harassment in October-November 2016. She was questioned and held by police after taking pictures of people standing in line outside a grocery store and attacked and insulted by unknown people. These incidents appeared to be deliberate attempts to intimidate her because of her work as a journalist. In addition, Achilova has experienced interruptions in her mobile phone and internet connections.

  • Yet another independent journalist, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, who has worked with RFE/RL and the Netherlands-based Alternative Turkmenistan News, remains in prison after being sentenced to three years in prison on spurious narcotics possession charges in August 2015. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has concluded that he has been arbitrarily detained and that he should be released.
  • Former independent journalist Chary Annamuradov, who obtained refugee status after fleeing Turkmenistan over a decade ago and now lives in Sweden, was arrested in Belarus in mid-July 2016 at the request of Turkmenistan’s government. Thanks to international interventions on his behalf, he was released in mid-September 2016 and able to return to Sweden, thus avoiding extradition to Turkmenistan. In October 2016, Human Rights Watch learned that his brother, Altymurad Annamuradov had died in Turkmenistan on 4 September 2016, after being kidnapped and tortured by unknown perpetrators. Turkmenistan’s government has insisted that Altymurad Annamuradov died because of heart problems.

Image featured with story: Bohan_Shen / CC BY

See also: Turkmenistan’s elections under cloud as civil society faces total clampdown