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Turkmenistan: internet disruptions, deportations of Turkey-based activists and bread protests

Turkmenistan: internet disruptions, deportations of Turkey-based activists and bread protests
Photo by Hans Birger Nilsen/CC BY 2.0
Turkmenistan: internet disruptions, deportations of Turkey-based activists and bread protests
Photo by Hans Birger Nilsen/CC BY 2.0

This update covers developments relating to the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Turkmenistan from June to October 2023. 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.

While internet speed was already slow compared to global standards, this problem deteriorated further during the reporting period, and in late June 2023, internet traffic in the country dropped to almost zero for several days in connection with the opening of a new city named in honour of ex-president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who also is known as Arkadag (“the Protector”). Slow connections created new difficulties for internet users trying to access so-called Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which are used to circumvent government-imposed internet censorship and visit news sites, social media platforms and other online resources which have been arbitrarily blocked in the country. Turkmenistan-based bloggers were reportedly pressured to take part in promoting the government’s narrative about a ‘’happy and prosperous’’ Turkmenistan, which is also propagated through state-controlled media.

In their ongoing campaign against dissent, the Turkmenistani authorities continued to seek the detention and return of outspoken activists based in Turkey, as also reported in previous updates. According to information obtained by human rights groups, at least four Turkmenistani activists were sent back to Turkmenistan from Turkey in July-October 2023, exposing them to a serious risk of torture, arrest and politically motivated imprisonment. Blogger Farhat Meimankulyiev (also known as Durdyiev), who was deported to Turkmenistan in May 2023, was reported to have been sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence in apparent retaliation for his criticism of the regime.

The health of long-term political prisoner Mansur Mingelov, who was imprisoned in 2012 after exposing abusive treatment of the Baloch ethnic minority, reportedly deteriorated further. When examining the situation in Turkmenistan at its session in Geneva in August 2023, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination conveyed its concerns about his case to the government, which again promised to ‘’consider’’ his release.

New cases were reported in which citizens held spontaneous protests to express their discontent about socio-economic problems affecting their everyday lives, such as the lack of bread and basic food products available at affordable prices in state-run stores. Those involved in such protests faced, on the one hand, intimidation and, on the other hand, attempts to silence them through concessions offered in response to their demands.

The authorities continued to mobilise citizens en masse for state-organised celebrations under the threat of repercussions. For example, public sector employees and students from across the country were mobilised to take part in the lavish festivities organised on the occasion of the opening of the new Arkadag city, in which the authorities of the impoverished country have invested several billion dollars. For weeks prior to the opening of the city, mobilised residents had to take part in outdoor rehearsals for several hours a day, despite temperatures as high as 40 degrees Celsius, resulting in many participants losing consciousness and needing medical assistance.

These issues are described in more detail below.

EXPRESSION

New free speech bottom rating and OSCE media expert visit

Turkmenistan has consistently been ranked at the bottom of international free expression surveys. As covered in the previous update, in Reporters without Borders’ 2023 Press Freedom Index, Turkmenistan was ranked on place 176 out of 180. In the Global Expression Report, published by Article 19 in July 2023, Turkmenistan was ranked third last, with only Syria and North Korea faring worse.

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Teresa Ribeiro, visited Turkmenistan in June 2023 and held meetings with different state officials. According to a press release about the visit, she discussed numerous challenges to media freedom in the country with her counterparts, including restrictions on the free flow of information both online and offline, limited access to information in the country and concerns related to the safety of journalists. She stressed that ‘’full and unrestricted access to the internet forms a crucial part of media pluralism in the country’’ and offered cooperation with her office on ensuring a safe environment for media workers.

Restrictions on access to information

As covered before, all media operating in Turkmenistan are subjected to close state control. At the same time, the authorities restrict access to information from alternative sources of information, in particular on the internet.

Internet connections remain slow and expensive in Turkmenistan compared to global standards, and disruptions in internet access are frequently reported. For example, TIHR reported that internet traffic in the country dropped to almost zero for several days in late June 2023, as confirmed by data from Cloudflare Radar (a service that documents internet usage patterns worldwide). This development took place in connection with the opening of the new Arkadag city, a so-called ‘’smart’’ city that reportedly cost USD 3.3 billion to build. According to sources quoted by Radio Azatlyk, the Prague-based Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the disruptions in internet access were the result of deliberate actions by the authorities, which wanted to prevent access to ‘’negative’’ news about the opening of Arkadag. While foreign-based independent news sites reporting critically about the situation in Turkmenistan are blocked in Turkmenistan, residents access such sites through the use of VPNs. However, due to the disruptions, this was not possible. At the same time, foreign guests attending the opening festivities in Arkadag were reportedly granted unrestricted internet access in the hotels where they were staying.

Internet traffic remained at a lower level than usual in Turkmenistan in the weeks following the opening of Arkadag and in late July 2023, TIHR reported new disruptions in internet access, which again were documented by data from Cloudflare Radar. Because of unstable internet access, internet users were unable to use VPN services to circumvent internet censorship and access blocked sites. IMO, the only messenger application which has not been blocked in the country, also stopped working due to low internet speed.

As covered before, independent news sites, social media networks, messenger applications and many other internet resources have been arbitrarily blocked in Turkmenistan. A large-scale academic study carried out by a team of computer scientists from leading US universities documented the blocking of over 120,000 domains. According to the Netherlands-based Turkmen News, the number of blocked sites has continued to increase in recent months, with as many as three quarters of all IP addresses worldwide having been blocked in the country. In July 2023, Turkmen News published a long list of resources which are among those blocked in the country.

In addition to blocking internet resources, the Turkmenistani authorities seek to prevent the use of VPN services to access blocked sites, including by intimidating and harassing both technical experts who install VPN applications on clients’ devices and people who use VPN services. For example, in October 2023, a technical expert was reportedly detained in the capital Ashgabat and sentenced to 15 days’ arrest and a fine of 15 000 manat for installing VPN services. It was not clear under which legal provisions the penalty was imposed. There have previously been other similar cases. In July 2023, Radio Azatlyk reported about a meeting held in the city of Turkmenbashi, where security officials and representatives of local authorities warned employees of state institutions to refrain from engaging with this news service (whose site is blocked in the country and only accessible through VPNs), either by reading its materials or providing information to it.

There were also reports of bloggers being summoned by local officials in several regions of the country and instructed to promote the government’s narrative about a ‘’happy and prosperous’’ Turkmenistan. They were asked to only publish materials that paint a positive picture of the situation in the country and were warned by police that posting, liking or commenting on any content critical of the authorities could be construed as ‘’anti-government activity’’ and result in negative consequences, including imprisonment.

During the period covered by this update, there were also reports about new attempts by the authorities to control and restrict access to foreign satellite TV channels.

ASSOCIATION

Return of government critics from Turkey to Turkmenistan

As covered before, in their ongoing campaign against dissidents and government critics, the Turkmenistani authorities have also gone after outspoken activists based abroad, particularly in Turkey, including by seeking their detention and return to Turkmenistan. In the last few months, several activists have been sent back from Turkey to Turkmenistan, despite the serious risk that they might be subjected to torture, ill-treatment and politically motivated arrest and prosecution upon return because of their previous public criticism of the Turkmenistani authorities.

  • As covered in the last update, in May 2023, blogger Farhat Meimankulyiev (also known as Durdyiev) was reportedly detained by Turkish police at the request of Turkmenistani authorities and deported to Turkmenistan. The Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF) later obtained information indicating that he was arrested, convicted and handed a lengthy prison sentence upon return. The blogger had previously reported harassment, in particular in August 2021, when he was arbitrarily detained at the premises of Turkmenistan’s consulate in Istanbul, ill-treated, and pressured to apologise for posting videos critical of the regime.

According to information received by TIHR, civil society activists Rovsen Klucev and Dovran Imamov were forcibly sent back from Turkey to Turkmenistan in July and August 2023, respectively, after being detained for migration violations. This put them at serious risk of persecution because of their criticism of Turkmenistani authorities on social media and their participation in anti-government protests. TIHR learned that Imamov was immediately detained by security service officials when arriving in Turkmenistan and placed in a detention facility in the city of Turkmenabat, where he was denied meetings with relatives. According to unconfirmed reports, both Imamov and Klucev faced trumped-up charges of fraud.

  • THF reported that Maksat Baymuradov, who has taken part in online discussions on political issues in Turkmenistan and criticised the authorities at such forums, was deported from Turkey to Turkmenistan in September 2023. According to THF’s sources, Baymuradov’s Turkish visa had previously been cancelled without warning. A lawyer involved in the case told THF that the activist’s deportation was carried out even though an appeal against the deportation decision had not yet been considered, making it unlawful. The Turkish authorities claimed that Baymuradov had signed a document in which he consented to his deportation. However, in a message sent to fellow activists shortly before his deportation, he denied having signed such a document and stated that Turkish officials had told him that he was being deported ‘’because he had criticised the authorities’’ in Turkmenistan. Similarly to in the cases described above, Baymuradov’s deportation exposed him to a real risk of persecution.
  • According to TIHR’s sources, on 17th October 2023, Serdar Durdylyev was deported from Turkey to Turkmenistan together with several dozen other Turkmenistani citizens. Durdylyev had previously been involved in the establishment of an association of Turkmenistani students in Turkey, whose leader Omruzak Omarkuliev was barred from leaving Turkmenistan after travelling to the country on official invitation in 2018. Omarkuliev was subsequently reported to have been arrested and convicted on trumped-up charges, after which he reportedly disappeared within the prison system. Omarkuliev’s case shows that Durdylyev is also at risk of persecution in Turkmenistan because of his engagement in the student association. When deported, Durdylyev had been held in detention since 6th September 2023. At the time of his detention, he had a valid residence permit but police told him that it had been annulled based on a decision ‘’from relevant agencies’’. On the evening before Durdylyev’s deportation, his lawyer was reportedly prevented from talking to him. At the time of writing, there had been no confirmed information about Durdylyev’s fate upon return to Turkmenistan.

The recent deportations of Turkmenistani activists from Turkey have taken place in a context in which the Turkish authorities have stepped up efforts to track down and return ‘’illegal’’ migrants lacking valid documents for residing in the country. However, the Turkish authorities have failed to comply with their obligation not to send anyone back to Turkmenistan in violation of the non-refoulement principle under international law, which prohibits states from deporting individuals when there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be at risk of irreparable harm upon return, including persecution, torture, ill-treatment or other serious human rights violations. Also, as covered before, many Turkmenistani citizens residing in Turkey have been unable to renew their migration documents due to difficulties with renewing their Turkmenistani passports at the country’s diplomatic representations in Turkey. In addition, last year the Turkish authorities ended a previous visa-free regime for Turkmenistani citizens at the request of Turkmenistani authorities.

New reports of ill-health of long-term political prisoner

Among those who are currently serving prison sentences in Turkmenistan on charges considered to be politically motivated is Mansur Mingelov. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison on multiple charges in 2012 after exposing abusive treatment of members of the Baloch ethnic minority and has spent more than a decade in prison. His health has reportedly deteriorated severely while in prison, and in late September 2023, Turkmen News reported that he was in a serious condition due to bone tuberculosis, a form of tuberculosis that spreads beyond the lungs and affects the bones. In spite of this, he was being transferred back from the prison hospital where he had been treated to the colony where he is serving his sentence.

When the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination examined Turkmenistan’s compliance with the corresponding convention in August 2023, its experts raised concerns about Mingelov’s case and requested information about measures taken to release him. The Turkmenistani state delegation told the Committee that the authorities were ‘’considering’’ pardoning him and would inform the Committee of their decision. Previously, the authorities made a similar pledge during the Human Rights Committee’s review of Turkmenistan’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in March 2023. At that time, they promised to ‘’consider’’ the releases of Migelov, as well as journalist Nurgeldy Khalykov and civil society activist Murat Dushemov, both of whom have also been imprisoned in retaliation for their civic engagement. However, there has been no information about any concrete steps taken by the authorities to follow up on these promises.

ASSEMBLY

Spontaneous protests

As covered before, while public protests are rare in Turkmenistan due to the repressive climate, there has recently been an increasing number of cases in which citizens have spontaneously gathered to voice discontent about difficulties related to the protracted economic crisis, widespread corruption, ineffective action of state bodies and other problems. Local authorities have sought to quickly end such protests by detaining and intimidating participants but also by promising certain concessions in response to their demands if they disperse. As local officials fear personal repercussions (such as dismissal or legal penalties) if expressions of discontent in their region are heard by those in power in Ashgabat, they have a strong motivation to silence people – using both the stick and carrot, when needed.

These are examples of spontaneous protests from the period covered by this update:

  • On 22nd May 2023, three residents of the Sovetskiy settlement (two women and one man) in the city of Shatlyk in the Mary region came to the local administration to complain about systematic power outages in the settlement and to demand action to address this problem. In response, police fined them all for allegedly disturbing public order. The male protester among them was also briefly detained and threatened with 15 days’ detention, but was eventually released after paying the fine.
  • On 7th August 2023, hundreds of people – most of whom were women – gathered outside the mayor’s office in the city of Turkmenbashi to protest against the shortage of flour, oil and other basic food products sold at subsidised prices in state-run stores. They demanded to talk to the mayor about this issue but were told that he was away. However, the mayor finally appeared after the protesters stated that they would otherwise walk to Abaz, a resort located close to Turkmenbashi, to convey their concerns directly to the president who was on vacation in the resort at the time. The mayor promised the crowd he would deal with the issue, but also warned them the president’s security service ‘’might use arms’’ against them should they try to approach him.

  • In late September 2023, dozens of people – again mostly women – gathered outside a local bakery in the city of Mary, which supplies bread to state-run stores selling food at subsidised prices. The protesters expressed resentment that the bakery sells a lot of bread to private entrepreneurs and farmers who need it to feed cattle, while bread is often unavailable in state-run stores. They demanded that the bakery management address the problem, stating that they would otherwise complain to the president. The bakery manager did not come out to talk to those who had gathered, saying he was busy but ordered his staff to give each of them three loaves of bread. However, according to one of the protesters, those present refused to take the bread offered, deeming it an attempt to ‘’bribe’’ them to shut up and said that they would proceed to bring their complaints to relevant authorities.

Mass mobilisation for state-organised events

In a practice criticised by UN human rights experts, the Turkmenistani authorities continue to mobilise public sector employees, students and other citizens for participation in state-organised celebrations and other mass events under the threat of dismissal and other repercussions.

During the period covered by this update, new cases of forced mass mobilisation were reported, including ahead of the grand opening of the new Arkadag city, named in the honour of ex-President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (also known as ‘’Arkadag’’ or ‘’the Protector’’) on his birthday on 29 June 2023. For more than two weeks before this event, public sector employees and students from different parts of the country were made to participate in rehearsals for the celebrations for several hours a day in the hot sun, when the temperature was as high as 40 degrees Celsius. According to Radio Azatlyk’s information, this resulted in many cases in which participants lost consciousness. At the same time, doctors were reportedly ordered to help all those requiring medical assistance on the spot, with ambulances standing ready at the rehearsal sites, and no one was allowed to skip the rehearsals for health reasons. Arkadag is a so-called ‘’smart’’ city featuring innovative solutions, which reportedly cost several billion USD to build.

Public employees and students were also mobilised for week-long rehearsals ahead of the Independence Day celebrations on 27th September 2023. As reported by TIHR, starting in late August, state employees in the capital Ashgabat were made to take part in rehearsals lasting several hours at the Dagdan stadium after the end of their workday. Mobilised students were warned not to complain about the organisation of the celebrations. At least some of those who were forced to take part in the Independence Day celebrations were also required to pay for the costumes they needed for the event themselves.

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