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

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Photo: M. Munneke/CC BY

Global civil society alliance CIVICUS, the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) today highlight a near total absence of civic space in Turkmenistan, as the country prepares to go to the polls for presidential elections this Sunday, 12 February 2017.

A detailed report published on 8 February on the CIVICUS Monitor describes the state’s all-pervasive control over people’s right to associate with one another, peacefully protest and criticise authority. This report is based on information contributed by IPHR and TIHR, an exiled human rights NGO that monitors the situation in the country with the help of an in-country network of activists.

“For years Turkmenistan has been one of the world’s most closed societies, but in recent months the situation facing independent journalists and civil society activists has become even worse, as the state has stepped up measures targeting those intent on revealing the reality of life in the gas-rich Central Asian state,” said Cathal Gilbert, Coordinator of the CIVICUS Monitor. “This calls into question the integrity of the upcoming elections.”

Although Turkmenistan regularly fares at the bottom of civil society assessments for its near total disregard for international human rights frameworks and democratic norms, recently, economic pressures and the impending presidential elections have caused even further decline in respect for basic civic freedoms. In October 2016, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov called for measures to prevent the spread of “false” information on the internet during the Asian Indoor Games, a call which appeared to trigger reinforced measures by law enforcement and security agencies against critical voices.

TIHR has also received information about individuals 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. 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.

Activists harassed include Nataliya Shabunts, who has been subjected to surveillance since November 2006, with unknown people taking turns in keeping watch outside her Ashgabat home. Media targeted include Radio Free Europe correspondent Hudaiberdi Allashov, who was arrested, allegedly subjected to torture and coerced into “confessing” to possessing 11 kg of chewing tobacco, as well as Journalist Soltan Achilova, who was detained and questioned by police after taking pictures of people standing in line outside a grocery store.  Achilova has also suffered incidents of being attacked and insulted by unknown people.

“Our colleagues inside the country are now subjected to unprecedented pressure,” said Farid Tuhbatullin, TIHR Chair. “As Turkmenistan goes to the polls this Sunday, the authorities need to recognise that their brutal attempts to close off debate are counterproductive, and act to the detriment of a healthy society.”’

No elections held in Turkmenistan have been recognised as free and fair by independent international observers and the Sunday elections will be no exception. While incumbent President Berdymukhammedov formally has eight competitors, none of them challenges his policies and the repressive environment in the country does not allow for any real debate, including on the serious economic challenges facing the country.

“What we are seeing now in Turkmenistan is a further erosion of the extremely limited civic space that there is in the country,” said Brigitte Dufour, IPHR Director. “Turkmenistan’s international partners must speak out against this alarming trend and push for real human rights improvements beyond the window-dressing that this tyrannical regime is trying to pass off as reforms.”

CIVICUS, IPRH and TIHR call on the government of Turkmenistan to respect the will of its people by allowing them to form associations and political parties of their choosing, freely assemble in any public location to make demands, and convey information and opinions through the media without impediment or threat of sanction.

The three organisations also urge regional actors and the international community to do more to put pressure on the government of Turkmenistan, and hold it to account for so flagrantly abusing established international human rights norms.

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See also: Report: Turkmenistan crashing dissent ahead of elections