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Turkmenistan: Dual personality cult, arbitrary travel bans and zero tolerance to public criticism

Turkmenistan: Dual personality cult, arbitrary travel bans and zero tolerance to public criticism
Image of Ex-president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, illustrative of the personality cult surrounding him and his son. Photo by Peretz Partensky/CC BY-SA 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ifl/3892552932/
Turkmenistan: Dual personality cult, arbitrary travel bans and zero tolerance to public criticism
Image of Ex-president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, illustrative of the personality cult surrounding him and his son. Photo by Peretz Partensky/CC BY-SA 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ifl/3892552932/

This update covers developments relating to the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Turkmenistan from January to May 2024. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have prepared it as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.

Turkmenistan remains a highly authoritarian country, characterised by a personality cult surrounding both its current President Serdar Berdymukhamedov and his father, ex-President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The latter has retained significant influence since stepping down in March 2022 following an orchestrated transition of power. During the reporting period, expressions of the dual personality cult included government officials being asked questions about the president’s and his family’s biographies during re-attestation of their professional credentials, state company managers being required to obtain costly wrist watches featuring pictures of the president and his father, and teachers being forced to contribute money for new official portraits of the president and ex-president under the threat of dismissal.

During the reporting period, the situation regarding freedom of expression and media in Turkmenistan remained dire. Turkmenistan was again among the worst of the worst in the World Press Freedom Index 2024, published by Reporters without Borders, being ranked 175th out of 180 countries and dropping in score from the previous year. As previously, internet censorship was pervasive, with frequent disruptions in service and widespread blocking of independent news sites, social media, messaging apps and other resources. Authorities aggressively targeted users of VPNs, which many people rely on to access blocked content, with punitive measures including internet cutoffs, questioning, and forced pledges to cease VPN use.

The authorities continued their relentless campaign against dissent, using different tactics, including the imposition of arbitrary travel bans. Parcha Yazmuhammedova was barred from travelling to Germany to visit family due to her son’s journalistic activities, and former political prisoner Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev was prevented from crossing the border to Iran and subsequently harassed by security officials. Prior to this, in November 2023, independent journalist Soltan Achilova had been barred from travelling to Geneva to speak about her work, with airport officials deliberately damaging her and her daughter’s passports and subjecting them to humiliating treatment. These actions were condemned by international human rights organisations, which called on the Turkmenistani government to cease such repressive measures.

Dissident Gulgeldy Annaniyazov was released after spending 16 years in prison, for most of which he was held incommunicado and denied family contact. Others convicted in retaliation for their legitimate exercise of civic freedoms remained behind bars.

Meanwhile, lawyers in Mary region faced threats of having their legal practice licences revoked after complaining about violations of lawyer-client confidentiality and coercion by law enforcement officials.

The authorities also continued to suppress public expressions of criticism by ordinary citizens, particularly regarding the protracted economic crisis and its impact. For example, in one notable case, a man expressing dissatisfaction with living conditions while standing in line outside a pharmacy in the capital Ashgabat was arrested and beaten by police officers.

During the reporting period, Turkmenistani authorities continued to forcibly mobilise public sector employees, students and other citizens for state-organised mass events. For example, citizens were compelled to join nationwide bike rides for World Health Day, disrupting the Ramadan fast for many, and hundreds were compelled to take part in state TV-filmed Day of the Turkmen Horse celebrations in the city of Mary, enduring prolonged exposure to heat while wearing national costumes.

These developments are described in more detail below.

EXPRESSION

NEW BOTTOM RATING IN GLOBAL SURVEY

Turkmenistan was again ranked at the bottom in the World Press Freedom Index 2024, published by Reporters without Borders in May 2024. Turkmenistan was ranked 175 among 180 countries, one place up from the previous year. However, at the same time, its scores deteriorated from 25.82 to 22.01 on a scale from 0-100 where 0 represents the lowest possible level of press freedom, and 100 the highest. Only Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea fared worse in the Index.

INTERNET CENSORSHIP

As covered before, internet connections are slow and expensive in Turkmenistan compared to global standards, and disruptions in internet access are frequently reported. For example, in late April 2024, recurring disruptions in internet access were reported from Mary region, with residents experiencing difficulties using internet both at home and through their mobile phones. In some districts of the region, residents had no access at all to the internet at home for two days. Residents received no clear explanations for the problems but were told that they were due to technical problems experienced by the regional telecommunications company and outdated communication cables in need of replacement.

Moreover, due to wide-ranging internet censorship, independent news sites, social media networks, messenger applications and many other internet resources have been arbitrarily blocked in Turkmenistan. Thus, many online resources are only accessible to people in the country with the help of internet censorship circumvention tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs). According to information compiled by the Techopedia site, Turkmenistan had the world’s highest number of searches for VPNs in 2023. At the same time, authorities campaign against the use of such tools to prevent people from accessing independent information about the situation in the country and openly discussing issues of concern to them. These are examples of such measures from the reporting period:

  • In early February 2024, it was reported that authorities in Balkan region had turned off the internet connection in the homes of those who had actively used VPN services the previous month. The residents in question were summoned for questioning by national and cyber security officials and required to sign written statements pledging to refrain from using VPNs again. Those who refused to do so were left without internet access. Two months later, authorities in the region blocked access to several new free VPNs which had emerged and immediately attracted popularity among internet users. In addition, medical workers were reportedly banned from bringing their mobile phones to work and from using social media platforms, even in their spare time.
  • According to independent media reports, in April 2024, employees at public institutions in Akhal region were prohibited from using VPN services on threat of dismissal and ordered to close their social media accounts.

The Netherlands-based Turkmen News reported on corruption related to internet censorship, with government cyber security officials allegedly using their position to “sell” access to unblocked sites and VPNs they created.

SUPPRESSION OF CRITICISM REGARDING SOCIO-ECONOMIC CRISIS

As covered before, authorities have sought to suppress public expressions of discontent concerning the impact of the protracted economic crisis in the country. The following incident from the reporting period illustrates this pattern:

  • On 27th January 2024, a man standing in line outside a pharmacy located in Alisher Navoy street in Ashgabat started complaining to others about the worsening socio-economic situation in the country. He said that his salary is not enough to buy basic necessities such as medicine and that the government does not care about people’s living conditions. Another man standing in line called the police, informing them what the first man was saying. Shortly thereafter, a group of police officers arrived and arrested the man who had been complaining, dragging him into a police car. According to eyewitnesses, the man was beaten by police officers in the police car before it drove off. The man’s further fate is not known.

ASSOCIATION

NEW TRAVEL BANS

As part of its ongoing campaign against government critics, authorities have arbitrarily prevented activists, journalists and their family members from travelling abroad. The reporting period saw new such cases.

  • On 24th February 2024, Parcha Yazmuhammedova was barred from boarding a flight bound for Germany at Ashgabat airport in apparent retaliation for her son’s journalistic work. A migration service official told Yazmuhammedova that her name appeared on a list of people prohibited from leaving the country and that she was not allowed to board the flight, despite her travel documents being in order. This incident occurred as she was en route to Germany to visit close relatives living there. Yazmuhammedova’s son, Rovshen Yazmuhammedov, has faced persistent intimidation and harassment since he began working as a correspondent for Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen service of Radio Liberty/Free Europe (RFE/RL), over a decade ago. He has been summoned, questioned and detained, and both he and his family members have been subjected to ongoing psychological pressure, which he believes contributed to his father’s death from a stroke in 2019. He has nevertheless continued his journalistic work, but recently stopped working with Radio Azatlyk. In a joint statement, IPHR and TIHR deplored the denial of exit from Turkmenistan of Parcha Yazmuhammedova as yet another deplorable attempt to intimidate and silence her son. They called on the authorities to immediately cease using arbitrary travel bans and ensure that journalists, activists and their family members are not unduly prevented from travelling abroad.

  • In another instance, on 18th January 2024, lawyer and former political prisoner Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev was prevented from travelling to Iran for personal reasons, including funeral prayers and medical treatment. Turkmenistani border guards refused to allow Allaberdyev to pass the Bajgiran checkpoint on the border with Iran, located some 50 kilometres from Ashgabat, saying that migration services had banned him from travelling abroad. However, they did not show him any document confirming this ban. After being stopped at the border checkpoint, national security service officials detained Allaberdyev, took him back to Ashgabat and held a “discussion” with him, in the course of which they demanded that he cease contact with Turkmenistani activists based abroad.

Previously, in September 2020, Allaberdyev was sentenced to six years in prison on charges believed to have been initiated in retaliation for his civic engagement and contacts with activists based abroad. Following international criticism, and a decision by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention deeming his detention unlawful, the lawyer was pardoned and released in December 2022. However, following his release, he has faced renewed harassment. Two weeks after the incident at the border, Allaberdyev was fined 200 manat (some 50 EUR according to the official exchange rate) by a local court for allegedly obstructing the lawful activities of authorities. These charges concerned critical remarks he had made about the work of prosecutors in a conversation with co-workers, which were secretly recorded and handed over to law enforcement authorities. Allaberdyev did not receive a copy of the court decision.

In a joint letter to OSCE Secretary-General Helga Schmid, more than 20 NGOs drew attention to the travel ban imposed against Allaberdyev and urged her to raise this and other similar cases during a visit to Turkmenistan in March 2024.

  • On 17th November 2023, independent journalist Soltan Achilova, who has reported on the situation in Turkmenistan for more than a decade and currently cooperates with TIHR, was prevented from travelling to Geneva together with her daughter Maya Achilova. Her planned Geneva visit was organised in follow-up to her selection as a finalist for the Martin Ennals Foundation’s prestigious human rights award in 2021. At that time, no visit was possible due to COVID-19 related restrictions. She had been engaged as a keynote speaker for the University of Geneva’s Human Rights Week 2023 and was also planning to meet with representatives of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, human rights defenders and students. However, border officials at Ashgabat airport did not allow Achilova and her daughter through passport control, even though their documents were in order. Customs and border officials also treated the journalist in a humiliating manner. She was stripped twice during body searches and at passport control, officials deliberately damaged her and her daughter’s passports by wiping the pages with wet napkins, thereby rendering them invalid for travel.

A group of 10 human rights NGOs, including TIHR, IPHR, Human Rights Watch and others issued a joint statement in Soltan Achilova’s support, saying that the authorities’ move to bar her from travelling to Geneva was shameful and clearly aimed at preventing her from shedding light on the repressive human rights situation in the country. They called on the Turkmenistani authorities to allow Achilova to travel abroad freely and stop harassing her because of her journalistic work. The Martin Ennals Foundation also condemned the government’s harassment of Achilova and her daughter, saying it was particularly reprehensible as it came only a few days after Turkmenistan committed to respecting freedom of expression at the Universal Periodic Review, held under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

FORMER POLITICAL PRISONER RELEASED

In April 2024, human rights defenders learned that dissident Gulgeldy Annaniyazov had been released after completing his most recent prison sentence. Annaniyazov was first arrested in 1995 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for organising an anti-government protest. After being amnestied in 1999, he left for Norway, where he was granted refugee status. However, in 2008, he returned to Turkmenistan, only to be arrested again and sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of allegedly crossing the border illegally. As covered before, he was held incommunicado and denied contact with his family for years. In spring 2019, his prison sentence was due to expire; however, instead of releasing him, the authorities added five more years to his sentence, but transferred him to a police-supervised settlement where relatives were allowed to visit him. When this sentence ended, he was finally released and allowed to return to his home in Ashgabat.

PRESSURE ON LAWYERS

According to information obtained by TIHR, in March 2024, a group of lawyers from Mary region filed a complaint with the Ministry of Justice concerning the actions of law enforcement officials. The lawyers alleged that law enforcement officials had been listening in to their conversations with clients held in the MR-D/14 pre-trial detention facility in the region, in violation of the principle of lawyer-client confidentiality, and pressuring clients to refrain from further services of privately engaged lawyers. Suspecting that wiretapping devices had been installed in the rooms where lawyer-client meetings are held in the pre-trial detention facility, the lawyers requested the detention facility management to allow them to meet with their clients outside the facility. However, this request was denied. Following their joint appeal, several lawyers were subsequently summoned for questioning by local security service departments and threatened with the revocation of their law practice licences.

PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

During the reporting period, authorities continued to forcibly mobilise people for state-organised mass events, in violation of the right to participate in assemblies voluntarily.

For example, on 7th April 2024, bike rides were organised across Turkmenistan on the occasion of World Health Day, with public sector employees and students mobilised en masse to participate. In Ashgabat, participants were transported to the event’s starting point as early as 4 o’ clock in the morning. Notably, the event coincided with the final days of Ramadan, necessitating participants who were fasting to break their fast prematurely. In addition, they were in a weaker state than usual because of weeks of fasting.

Later, on 26th April 2024, hundreds of teachers, doctors, other public sector officials and students were mobilised for Day of the Turkmen Horse celebrations in Mary. During the celebrations, filmed for state TV, participants were required to wear national costumes and to endure hours of standing, clapping and flag-waving under the scorching sun, despite temperatures reaching around 30 degrees Celsius. Reports indicate that participants who complained to their supervisors about having to attend the celebrations instead of doing their work were warned that they had to endure such events if they wished to retain their employment.

Authorities also regularly mobilise people for so-called subbotniki, or days of compulsory public labour. For example, in March 2024, people were mass mobilised for large-scale tree planting initiatives. In the city of Turkmenbashi, participants were also required to make supposedly voluntary contributions to cover the costs related to this campaign.

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