Turkmenistan: Flashy Asiada marred by human rights violations

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Photo: From the TV broadcast of the Asiada opening

The first-ever major international sports event held in Turkmenistan, the fifth Asian Indoor and Martial Art Games or the so-called Asiada 2017, began with a lavish opening ceremony in Ashgabat on 17th September 2017. It continues for ten days, ending on 27th September. Turkmenistan’s government has invested billions of dollars and has spent several years preparing for it with the aim of using the event to improve the country’s international image. However, in the shadow of this costly, flashy event, the fundamental rights of citizens continue to be seriously violated. Planning for and organising the Asiada has also resulted in a new array of arbitrary restrictions and violations of the rights of citizens. Among others, the authorities have limited the freedom of movement for residents of the capital, imposed an informal curfew, carried out raids, deported internal migrant workers from Ashgabat, introduced new restrictions on travel abroad, and demolished houses and evicted residents without the due legal safeguards and as part of government construction projects. Furthermore, state censorship has been reinforced in the context of the Asiada, critical voices have been subjected to renewed pressure, and state employees and students have been forcefully mobilised to participate in or attend the Asiada ceremonies.

This update covers developments affecting freedom of association, assembly and expression in Turkmenistan since July 2017 and has been prepared for the CIVICUS Monitor by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) on the basis of monitoring conducted by TIHR.

Expression

State censorship and restrictions on internet access

As TIHR and IPHR have reported before, Turkmenistan’s media are heavily controlled by the state and primarily used for government propaganda purposes. The president has repeatedly instructed media to focus on reporting positive developments and achievements of the regime, including in the context of the Asiada. Thus, the many restrictions and inconveniences that these games have caused for citizens have not been covered by national media.

Representatives of some foreign media, including the Associated Press (AP), the Guardian and other outlets that were initially accredited to cover the Asiada had their accreditation revoked shortly before the start of the games. The chair of the executive committee staging the games told the AP that this was due to the lack of capacity to accommodate all who had expressed interest in attending and that “priority has been given to those from Asian and Oceanian (National Olympic Committees) to better serve and promote the games”. However, given the repressive media climate in Turkmenistan, these reports suggest that the government deliberately cancelled the accreditation of representatives of foreign media outlets who were likely to have provided unflattering coverage of the games.


By cordoning off the Olympic village where the Asiada takes place, restricting the free movement of residents of the capital and requiring foreign visitors to always be accompanied by guides, the authorities have also sought to limit interaction between local residents and visitors and prevent the latter from obtaining “undesirable” impressions of the situation in the country.

The government has announced that the state Turkmen Telecom operator is providing high-speed and uncensored internet services to Asiada participants and visitors, and TIHR has learned that otherwise blocked sites were available in the capital in connection with the opening of the games. For local residents, however, internet access remains severely restricted. Many websites that publish information critical of the situation in the country, social media sites and online communication apps are de-facto inaccessible and can only be visited through proxy servers, which are also regularly blocked. Internet services are also generally slow and expensive compared to global standards.

One of the sites blocked in Turkmenistan is TIHR’s website, chrono-tm.org. This site has also repeatedly been the target of attacks, which TIHR believes have been administered by the security services. Most recently, in August 2017 the site was subjected to a massive denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, which resulted in problems for those trying to access it. This happened after TIHR published a satirical video featuring Turkmenistan’s president who demonstrated his armed skills in a macho-like style. The video was based on footage shown on Turkmen state TV with sound effects and comments added and drew a lot of attention, including from Western media.

Persecution of government critics and opponents

In the period leading up to the Asiada, there were new instances of intimidation and harassment of individuals who cooperate with foreign-based organisations to provide information on developments in Turkmenistan.

Soltan Achilova, a correspondent for the Prague-based Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), reported being warned and physically prevented from taking photos by unknown men in several different incidents that took place in late July 2017. In one of these incidents, the assailant threatened to “destroy” Achilova and her camera and said she had “one foot in the grave” and that she was “already dead.” She also reported that her home was under surveillance. Achilova has repeatedly been intimidated and attacked in the past year.

Nataliya Shabunts, an outspoken civil society activist who cooperates closely with TIHR, has also faced increasing pressure. In the past few months she has been subjected to ongoing surveillance by unknown people keeping watch outside her apartment and she has experienced unexplained interruptions to her internet access. On 7th August 2017, when she was out walking her dogs, she was assaulted in the street by two young women and a man who joined them. The group yelled racist slurs at her, calling her a “Russian swine” and telling her to “go to her Russia”, while insisting that “we live very well in our wonderful country”. When she tried to seek help in a nearby store, a few men there also started yelling insults at her and only stopped after being reproached by an elderly man. After the incident, neighbours who witnessed the assault on Nataliya through the windows of their apartments told her that they had often seen the first man who insulted her outside the apartment complex.

Another journalist working with the RFE/RL and the Netherlands-based Alternative News of Turkmenistan, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev has now been imprisoned for two years on spurious charges of possessing illicit drugs. Nepeskuliev disappeared when he was on a reporting trip in the city of Avaza in July 2015 and was held incommunicado for weeks before he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison in a closed trial on 31st August 2015. RFE/RL has concluded that he is “being punished for his journalism” and that his imprisonment “appears to be part of a systematic campaign by the government to eviscerate RFE/RL’s local reporting network”. His imprisonment has also been widely criticised by human rights groups and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has deemed it unlawful [see opinion issued by the Group].

Association

Dozens of individuals imprisoned following closed, politically-motivated trials have disappeared within Turkmenistan’s opaque prison system. Their relatives have been denied any contact with them and have not received any information about their whereabouts or fate for as long as a decade or more. In August 2017, one of the victims of this practice, the former chief of the president’s security services Akmurad Rejepov was reported to have died in prison after being held incommunicado for 10 years. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison on multiple charges in 2007, after falling out of favour with those in power. His case is one of those raised by the Prove They Are Alive initiative, which campaigns for an end to enforced disappearances in Turkmenistan. According to new figures presented by this initiative in September 2017, it has now documented a total of 112 cases of enforced disappearances in the country, with 23 confirmed deaths among the victims.

TIHR has also learned about targeted efforts to ensure control of “inconvenient” people during the Asiada. According to information obtained by the organization, in late August 2017 the government instructed regional-level security, law enforcement and migration services to pay “particular attention” to certain listed individuals during the games. In addition to people with criminal records, people undergoing treatment for mental health problems and people under police surveillance because of alcohol or drug abuse or other “anti-social” behaviour, the lists dispatched by the government also featured the names of civil society activists and relatives of exiled activists. Without any legal grounds, these “inconvenient” individuals have been summoned to appear at local police stations for registration. In the cases of which TIHR is aware, the affected individuals have declined to comply with these unlawful requests.

Peaceful Assembly

As previously reported by TIHR and IPHR, the national authorities regularly and forcefully mobilise residents for participation in various state-organised mass events. This practice violates the principle of voluntary participation in assemblies and has been criticised, among others, by the UN Human Rights Committee.

Ahead of the Asiada, for example, students and state employees were mobilised to participate in ceremonies taking place during the competition, as well as for time-consuming rehearsals for them. As reported by TIHR, college and university students in Ashgabat were required to participate in intense rehearsals for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Asiada during their summer break.

According to information from TIHR, as of August staff at state institutions had also been mobilised as the audience for the Asiada. Those pre-selected for this task were requested to provide information about their relatives dating back three generations to ensure that they have a “clean” family history. Those whose relatives include people with a criminal record or “unreliable” people, such as those who have fallen out of favour because of their criticism of the regime were excluded from participation. A total of some 40,000 people have been mobilised to attend the opening and closing ceremonies of the Asiada, as well as competitions taking place in different fields during the games. Prior to the start of the games, these individuals were required to participate in rehearsals from early morning to late at night, during which they were taught to clap their hands and praise the country’s leader in unison. According to TIHR’s sources, they have not been provided with any food, although they have been allowed to bring their own provisions or visit nearby cafes during short intermissions. Phones are prohibited for these spectators.

Other independent sources have reported that state employees mobilised for the Asiada have been required to pay 200 manat (50 EUR) for the ticket for the event and a badge for accessing it, at the threat of dismissal for refusal to do so.

As previously covered on the Monitor, in the months leading up to the Asiada state employees have also been ordered to contribute part of their salaries to cover the costs of the games. Held at a time of worsening economic crisis in Turkmenistan, the Asiada and the government’s profuse spending on this event have placed a heavy burden on state finances.