Turkmenistan: Rights violations abound ahead of the Asiada Games

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International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have prepared the following CIVICUS Monitor update on the  most recent developments affecting freedom of association, assembly and expression in Turkmenistan:

Asiada-2017, the fifth Asian Indoor Games, will take place in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, from 17 to 27th September 2017. Turkmenistan’s president aims to ensure that this international sports competition, with thousands of athletes from Asian and Oceanic countries, is successful and improves the international image of the country. President Berdymukhamedov has repeatedly stated that it is the obligation of journalists and representatives of other creative professions to promote a positive image of the country, its regime and to “praise the achievements of the sovereign motherland”.

Within the context of the upcoming, high-profile sports games, the regime has increased its control over citizens and its curtailment of their basic rights. Recent examples of this include:

  • Staff at state institutions have reportedly been required to contribute part of their salaries toward the costs of the Games, and some Ashgabat residents have been forced to relocate.
  • Police have detained people on the streets of the capital deemed to be homeless, prostitutes, alcohol and drug addicts, or who may otherwise “taint” the impression of the city for foreign visitors coming to the Asiada.
  • Citizens are being forced en masse to rehearse performances to be held at the opening ceremonies of the Games.

Association

As covered on the Monitor previously, after the failed July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, Turkmenistan’s authorities began a severe crackdown on individuals accused of being associated with the Hizmet movement and its leader, Fethullah Gülen, who has been accused of masterminding the coup attempt in Turkey. As part of this politically-motivated crackdown, purported Gülen supporters have been arbitrarily detained, allegedly subjected to torture and ill-treatment, and convicted in unfair trials.

In a joint statement issued in June 2017, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Alternative Turkmenistan News, TIHR, IPHR, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Crude Accountability called on Turkmenistan’s authorities to immediately release 18 men detained and imprisoned as part of the anti-Gülen crackdown, as well as rescind their sentences. These men were among over 100 people detained in September to October 2016 because they all attended universities in Turkey or taught, studied, worked at or supported schools in Turkmenistan believed to have been affiliated with Gülen and Hizmet. There are credible allegations that these men were held in inhumane conditions and tortured during pre-trial detention, including being held naked in darkened rooms for long periods and beaten. Their prison sentences, ranging from 12 to 25 years, were handed down in a closed, unfair two-hour trial in February 2017. A summary of the verdict provided to the defendants lacked any information about the specific acts they allegedly carried out to warrant the charges against them, which included inciting social, ethnic or religious hatred and creating and financing a criminal.

There have also been reports of new cases of detentions of individuals accused of having links to Gülen and the Hizmet movement in recent months. According to the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Azatlyk, about 50 individuals were detained by law enforcement authorities during anti-Gülen raids carried out in the Lebap region in April to May 2017, and many of them were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison during closed court proceedings held in early July. These individuals are believed to have been convicted on similar charges as the group of men sentenced in February. Those targeted this time had also studied or taught at Turkish schools in Turkmenistan or had been enrolled at universities in Turkmenistan.

Most Turkish schools in Turkmenistan were closed down in 2011. These schools were financially supported by Turkish business owners and provided what was generally considered a high-standard education in Turkish and were a popular alternative to the Turkmen state schools, where the quality of education remains low, in spite of Berdymukhamedov’s reforms. The move to close the Turkish schools also appeared prompted by concerns about the alleged influence of the Hizmet movement on these institutions.

Peaceful Assembly

In a recent and concerning development with respect to freedom of assembly, school administrations imposed restrictions on student gatherings at the end of the school year. In a well-established tradition, the so-called pozledniy zvonok (last bell) celebrations are organised for students graduating from secondary school. This year, such celebrations were held in schools across the country on 25th May 2017. However, according to information obtained by TIHR from the Dashoguz and Lebap regions, when the school-organised programmes ended, students were told to go home and refrain from gathering with their fellow students for continued celebrations in public places. The owners of cafes and bars received orders from local authorities not to organise events for graduating students and to close no later than 9pm.

Expression

In an example of how the executive directly interferes with the editorial policies of media, on 6th May the president appointed Saparyev Muhammetdurdy chief editor of the regional, state-controlled Maru-Şahu-Jahan newspaper to assume Geldiev Aydogdy’s position when he retired. This appointment contravenes provisions in the 2012 Media Law, which states that chief editors are appointed and dismissed by the founders of media outlets, not the president of the country. This was not the first time that the president has acted in violation of this provision.

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Image featured with post: Turkmenistan’s team at the 2014 Asian Games. Photo: Jeon Han/CC BY