ISSN 2330-717X

Turkmenistan: New Internet Restrictions, New Cases Of Persecution Of Outspoken Activists – Analysis

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This update covers developments relating to the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Turkmenistan from December 2020 to March 2021. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have prepared it as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.

The bleak human rights situation in Turkmenistan resulted in the country again ending up at the bottom in the Freedom in the World 2021report published by Freedom House in March 2021. Turkmenistan received the same overall score for the level of political and civil rights in the country as South Sudan and Eritrea: 2 on a scale from 0 to 100, where 100 represents the highest level of freedom. Only Syria and Tibet fared worse, while North Korea received one point more.

During the reporting period, the government continued to claim that Turkmenistan was COVID-19 free, although independent sources have reported that the pandemic has taken a serious toll in the country. As part of their efforts to cover up the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, the authorities made new attempts to track down medical workers sharing COVID-19 related information with exile-based outlets, which provide independent coverage of the situation in Turkmenistan. At the same time, President Berdymukhammedov attracted worldwide attention with his claim that liquorice might hold the answer to the cure for COVID-19 and ordered national scientists to work on a medicine based on this plant.

The authorities also continued to deny the scope and extent of the protracted economic and social crisis in the country, which has resulted in mass layoffs, growing poverty, shortages of basic food products sold at state-subsidised prices and other serious consequences for the population. As part of the attempts by the authorities to conceal the impact of the crisis, it was reported that police in the south-eastern Mary region randomly detained people who looked dishevelled or wore old clothes, accusing them of begging or being homeless and sending some of them to work for free on state-owned farms.

Following an order from the president, the state monopoly internet provider significantly decreased its user tariffs in February 2021. However, it did not cope with the increasing demand this prompted, and its services remained expensive in relation to the average level of income. Internet access was also slow and censored, with Turkmenistan being ranked last in a global index on the speed of internet connections, with many online resources being arbitrarily blocked in the country. At the same time, the authorities stepped up efforts to prevent residents from using censorship circumvention tools (VPNs) to access blocked resources, such as independent Turkmenistan-covering news sites and government critical groups on social media platforms. In particular, large service failures for VPNs occurred in March 2021, and there were new reports of internet users being summoned, questioned and intimidated by security services because they had used VPNs to access online content critical of the authorities.

There were also new cases of persecution of Turkmenistani activists speaking out against the government. The Netherlands-based Turkmen News reported that its contributor in Turkmenistan, Nurgeldy Khalykovwas sentenced to four years in prison on fraud charges believed to have been fabricated in retaliation for his cooperation with the outlet. The Turkmenistani authorities tracked him down after he obtained an innocuous photo of a World Health Organization (WHO) delegation visiting Turkmenistan from the Instagram account of a former schoolmate and passed it on to Turkmen News.

A case that attracted a lot of attention was that of Rozgeldy Choliev, a Turkmenistani activist who was denied entry to Russia in March 2021, refused the right to file an asylum application for a week and threatened with being returned to his home country. Following appeals by human rights groups, the Russian authorities accepted his asylum application, but did not let him leave the airport and eventually informed him that his application had been rejected and sent him back to Turkey, the country from which he had arrived. Choliev has repeatedly been subjected to harassment because of his online videos critical of Turkmenistan’s government, and available information indicates that he currently remains under close surveillance by Turkmenistani authorities in Turkey.

In another case, Malik Allamyradov — a Turkmenistani activist who lives and studies in Russia — was detained, questioned and threatened with deportation by Russian police after he held a one-person picket to protest against the policies of the Turkmenistani government in February 2021. A local court eventually acquitted him of charges of violating the procedure for organising assemblies. However, Allamyradov also faced pressure from officials at the Russian university where he is enrolled because of his government critical positions, expressed at the picket and through a YouTube channel he runs. Relatives of both Rozgeldy Choliev and Sultan Ovezov have been singled out for intimidation in Turkmenistan because of the civic engagement of the two activists. The case of Turkey-based Sultan Ovezov also illustrates the practice of targeting the relatives of foreign-based activists: security services intimidated Ovezov’s mother in Turkmenistan after he participated in several online conferences to discuss human rights protection in his home country in early 2021.

TIHR contributor Soltan Achilova, who has repeatedly been subjected to intimidation and harassment because of her courageous on-the-ground work in Turkmenistan, was nominated for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. When footage from the award ceremony was shown on Euronews, its broadcasts were temporarily stopped in the country.

As covered before, Turkmenistani activists living abroad have organised a series of rallies against the Turkmenistani government in the past year. During the reporting period, foreign-based opposition groups initiated new protests to call on the Turkmenistani authorities to ensure accountability for the killing of a teenage athlete. Ahead of one-person pickets planned to be held in Turkey in February 2021 to communicate this message, Turkish police and other people believed to be acting on the initiative of Turkmenistani diplomats approached Turkmenistani migrants and warned them not to take part in the protests.

While repressing the right of citizens to discuss, engage with and freely assemble on issues of public concern, the Turkmenistani authorities continued the practice of forcibly mobilising citizens for state-organised mass events, even if there were fewer events of this kind than previously. In spite of its policy of COVID-19 denial, the Turkmenistani government has initiated measures aimed at preventing the spread of the Coronavirus, including restrictions on mass events. However, as seen in the exceptions made for certain state events, these restrictions have been selectively enforced. The authorities also failed to ensure that participants in the state-organised ceremonies wore masks and practised physical distancing, as required in other contexts.

Expression

Continued COVID-19 denial

The Turkmenistani government has persistently claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic has not reached the country, although information from independent sources has indicated a serious, national outbreak. As part of its policy of COVID-19 denial, the government has pressured medical workers to participate in covering up the national COVID-19 outbreak and threatened them with repercussions should they leak information about COVID-19 related cases. In March 2021, Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on a new case of intimidation of this nature. According to the service, police in the city of Turkmenabat carried out checks of the mobile phones of staff working at local medical institutions in an attempt to track down individuals sharing COVID-19 related information with independent outlets based abroad.

Internet restrictions and censorship

As repeatedly covered before, internet access in Turkmenistan is expensive, slow and heavily restricted. In February 2021, the president called for improved availability of internet services and reduced costs for such services. The following day the state monopoly internet provider, Turkmentelekom significantly decreased its tariffs. Thus, the monthly costs decreased from 150 to 100 manat (around USD 29 at the official exchange rate and USD 3 at the more commonly used black market rate) for the cheapest unlimited internet access rate at the speed of 256 kbps, and from 350 to 200 manat (around USD 57 at the official exchange rate and USD 7 at the black market rate) for the fastest available internet access rate at 2 Mbps. For residents in rural areas, new unlimited internet access rates were introduced, with internet at the speed of 256 kbps costing 50 manat per month. The price changes were a welcome development as such; however, soon after they were implemented, internet users started complaining about growing problems with internet interruptions and internet speed below those promised, especially during evening peak hours. This suggested that Turkmentelekom could not cope with the increased load that resulted from the price decreases, when more people than previously started using its internet services.

Even the fastest available internet access option in Turkmenistan (2 Mbps) is slow compared to global standards. According to the Speedtest Global Index the global average speed for fixed broadband connections was 98 Mbps in February 2021. The site listed Turkmenistan last on its ranking of the speed of both fixed broadband and mobile internet connections in different countries across the world.

Residents of Turkmenistan can use mobile internet services through the state monopoly mobile operator Altyn Asyr (‘’Golden Age”). However, because of the high costs of these services, their accessibility is limitedTurkmentelekom also offers wi-fi access in public places, but this option does not enjoy broad popularity as costs are similar to those of fixed broadband connections for private households.

According to the Digital report, internet penetration in Turkmenistan was 26 per cent in 2020. According to TIHR’s assessments, internet use is most widespread in larger cities, and less common in rural areas, where internet infrastructure is less developed.

Internet resources are arbitrarily blocked in Turkmenistan, without any court or other official decisions to this end, and without warning or explanation for the reasons. Many social media networks, messenger apps and websites that provide independent information about the situation in Turkmenistan have been blocked in the country. Most recently, among others, the Zoom conference platform was reportedly blocked. Blocked internet resources are only accessible to residents of Turkmenistan with the help of internet censorship circumvention tools such as VPNs (virtual private networks). At the same time, the authorities regularly block access to such tools as well. In mid-March 2021, TIHR and other independent outlets learned about serious fresh problems with respect to the use of VPNs in Turkmenistan, with residents from across the country reporting that such services worked extremely slowly, if at all. As a result, residents were not able to access different internet resources that are unavailable without the use of VPNs. For example, visits to TIHR’s site The Chronicles of Turkmenistan, which is blocked in the country, decreased by more than 50 per cent at this time.

According to TIHR’s sources, the large-scale service failure for VPNs was likely due to deliberate measures by the authorities to block access to such services rather than to technical problems. Based on the recent experience, experts with whom Turkmen News spoke suggested that some kind of an automated system is used to block access to VPNs in Turkmenistan. At the end of March 2021, problems with VPNs remained in the country, with users reporting that access to such services was unstable and characterised by frequent interruptions.

Intimidation of internet users circumventing censorship

During the period covered by this update there were also new reports about intimidation of residents accessing blocked internet resources in Turkmenistan. According to Radio Azatlyk, the security services summoned at least ten people living in the Lebap region in December 2020, questioning them about why they were watching online content critical of the situation in Turkmenistan and pressuring them to sign statements saying that they would stop accessing such resources. One of those targeted told the service that security service officials questioned him for about eight hours about YouTube content he had recently watched and threatened him with criminal prosecution and imprisonment unless he agreed to sign a statement saying that he would stop using VPNs to access information critical of Turkmenistan’s government and president. He said that the security service officials asked him: “Are you a traitor? Against the President?”. In March 2021, Radio Azatlyk reported  that security service officials in the Mary region were summoning people using VPNs for “prophylactic discussions’’.

Association

Intimidation of activists

As covered before, the Turkmenistani authorities have recently stepped up pressure on critical voices in response to growing expressions of discontent with the government, in particular through online channels. Those targeted include both people based in the country and activists living abroad, as well as their relatives in Turkmenistan. During the period covered by this update, new cases of persecution were reported, including those described below.

In the following case, the Turkmenistani authorities targeted a Turkmenistan-based activist cooperating with a news and human rights organisation operating from the Netherlands:

In December 2020, Turkmen News reported that Nurgeldy Khalykov had been sentenced to four years in prison on fraud charges believed to have been fabricated in retaliation for his cooperation with the outlet. A local Ashgabat court handed down the sentence on 15th September 2020, allegedly based on a complaint that Khalykov had failed to repay a private debt of 5,000 USD. Khalykov was first detained and prosecuted in mid-July 2020 after sharing a photo with Turkmen News of the WHO mission, who visited Turkmenistan that month to look into the COVID-19 related situation in the country. The photo in question depicted mission members sitting at a table and talking outside an Ashgabat hotel which had been taken by Khalykov’s former schoolmate, who was hanging out at the hotel pool with her friends. She posted it on her Instagram account where Khalykov saw it. According to Turkmen News, police first detained the young woman who took the picture and carefully studied the contacts and communication on her mobile phone, which made it possible for them to identify Khalykov. At the time of his detention, Khalykov had cooperated with Turkmen News for several years and the outlet had published dozens of stories based on his information, including most recently in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Reporters without Borders called on the Turkmenistani authorities to promptly free Khalykov, saying that his conviction ‘’exemplifies the absurdity of the trumped-up charges used by the authorities [in Turkmenistan] to gag the free press’s few remaining representatives.”The new OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Teresa Ribeiro, stated that she had requested additional information on Khalykov’scase during a meeting with Turkmenistan’s ambassador in Vienna in February 2021.

The recent developments in the case of this activist attracted a lot of attention:

Rozgeldy Choliev has repeatedly been subjected to pressure for posting videos critical of Turkmenistan’s government on the internet. As documented by Memorial Human Rights Centre and the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, he started posting such videos in April 2020 to express his resentment at the government’s refusal to allow his parents to send him USD 500 to help cover costs related to the birth of his son in Russia, where he was living and studying with his wife at the time. Turkmenistan’s government strictly controls money flows out of the country and does not allow individual citizens to convert money into foreign currencies and transfer it abroad without permission. Choliev’s video appeals appeared on the social media channels of Turkmenistani opposition groups based abroad. Soon after the publication of his first video, an official from the administration of Karachay-Cherkess State University, where he enrolled as a student in 2018, summoned him for discussion, accused him of “dishonouring the university’’ and ‘’defaming his country”, and threatened to have him returned to Turkmenistan. This was reportedly done based on the initiative of Turkmenistan’s consulate, who had contacted the university. Choliev’s relatives residing in Turkmenistan were also subjected to intimidation. However, in spite of this, Choliev continued posting government critical videos, and in September 2020 he flew to Turkey where he was planning to connect with other activists from Turkmenistan. After an earlier failed attempt to board a plane back to Russia, he arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on a plane from Istanbul on 2nd March 2021. Russian border officials refused him entry with reference to travel restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and threatened to deport him. They initially ignored his request to apply for asylum and he was left stranded in the international sector of the airport. In a joint letter dated 8th March 2021, Memorial Human Rights Centre, Human Rights Watch, the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, TIHR and IPHR called on the Russian State Border Service to urgently allow Choliev access to an asylum determination procedure, in accordance with Russia’s international obligations. After this, the Russian authorities eventually accepted Choliev’s asylum application. However, he was not allowed to leave Sheremetyevo Airport and on 23rd March 2021 he was informed that his asylum application had been rejected, forcibly placed on a plane to Turkey and deported without having had the opportunity to appeal the asylum decision. According to information from the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, when Choliev arrived in Istanbul, Turkish police informed him that a representative of the Turkish consulate in the city was waiting for him. He declined to meet the official, who then asked Turkish police to hand over copies of ‘’all Choliev’s documents’’ and said that the consulate ‘’will find him’’. Consulate officials had also reportedly visited Choliev’s acquaintances from Turkmenistan, with whom he had previously been staying in Istanbul. As a result, they told him that they could no longer accommodate him as they feared possible repercussions. Following his return to Turkey, Choliev has continued posting YouTube appeals and he remains at risk.

This is another case of intimidation of a Turkmenistani activist studying in Russia:

Since July 2020, Malik Allamyradov, a student from Turkmenistan enrolled at the Russian State University of Kalmykia, has been running a YouTube channel called ‘’For Turkmenistan’s Honour’’ where he frequently criticises the Turkmenistani government. Because of Allamyradov’s social media engagement, Turkmenistani law enforcement authorities have intimidated his parents who live in the Mary region of Turkmenistan, including by summoning them and demanding that their son shuts down his YouTube channel and stops criticising the authorities. As reported by Memorial Human Rights Centre and the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, on 18th February 2021, Allamyradov staged a single picket in the centre of the city of Elista in Russian Kalmykia where he lives to protest the Turkmenistani government’s restrictive policies with respect to money transfers abroad, which have created financial difficulties for many Turkmenistani students enrolled at foreign universities. Fifteen minutes after he started his picket, local police detained Allamyradov. They held and questioned him for several hours, issued a protocol against him for violating the procedure for organising assemblies set out by Russian law and warned him that he might face not only fines but also deportation when his case is heard in court. The police officers claimed that the provision of Russian law that allows for holding single pickets without advance permission from authorities does not apply to foreigners. They also accused Allamyradov’s friend, a student from Uzbekistan who filmed the picket and was detained together with the activist, of taking part in an unsanctioned protest. Following this incident, university officials held several discussions with Allamyradov, during which they reportedly subjected him to pressure because of his civic activism and threatened to expel him from the university. On 11th March 2021, a local court considered the picket case and found no violation of the law in the actions of the two students.

This case provides another example of pressure on Turkmenistan-based relatives of activists living abroad:

Memorial Human Rights Centre and the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights reported that the mother of Sultan Ovezov, who currently lives in Turkey, was singled out for intimidation after he participated in several online conferences organised by Turkmenistani activists based abroad in January 2021. These conferences, which were streamed through Telegram and YouTube, were devoted to discussing issues concerning human rights protection in Turkmenistan and the problems facing migrants with respect to renewing their Turkmenistani passports. According to Ovezov, he wanted to learn more about his rights and how to claim them. Unlike many other participants he did not hide his face during the conferences, as a result of which the Turkmenistani authorities were able to identify him. On 23rd February 2021, security service and plain clothes officers visited Ovezov’s mother, who lives in the city of Turkmenabat in Turkmenistan. Without introducing themselves, they started asking questions about her son, such as where he is, what he is doing, who his friends are, and also about his interest in political issues and his participation in online conferences. The officers demanded that Ovezov return to Turkmenistan. When his mother said that her son is 24 years old and can answer for himself, the officers started threatening her, saying in particular: ‘’Your son will rot in jail, you will never see him again’’.

Defender working with TIHR nominated for prestigious award

In January 2021, Soltan Achilova, an independent Turkmenistan-based journalist and human rights defender who cooperates with TIHR, was nominated for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defendersalong with two other defenders. This was the first time that a defender from Turkmenistan has been selected as a finalist for the prize, which has been awarded annually since 1994. The nomination of Achilova read: ‘’In retaliation for her commitment to freedom of speech in one of the most censured and isolated countries in the world, Soltanwas victim to physical attacks, subject to a travel ban and strict surveillance. Against all odds, she keeps speaking the truth and reporting on human rights abuses in her country.’’

In previous updates, we have repeatedly reported about the harassment and intimidation of Achilova for her human rights reporting. The 2021 Martin Ennals Award eventually went to Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, but Achilova’s nomination helped attract attention to the dire human rights situation in Turkmenistan and served as recognition and encouragement of her work.

In a related development that illustrates the censorship approach of the Turkmenistani government, TIHR learned that broadcasts of Euronews were stopped in Turkmenistan after the TV channel showed footage of the Martin Ennals Award Ceremony and finalist Soltan Achilova. The broadcasts resumed approximately a week later.

Peaceful Assembly

Anti-government protests abroad and intimidation of participants

As previously reported, in the past year, members of Turkmenistani communities abroad have organised a number of assemblies to protest against the policies of the Turkmenistani government. Recently, foreign-based opposition groups initiated new protests in connection with the death of a young martial arts athlete, who was killed under unclear circumstances in Turkmenistanin February 2021. After an earlier rally was cancelled due to heavy snowfall, Turkmenistani activists in New York held a protest on 6th March 2021, demanding that the Turkmenistani authorities punish those responsible for the death of the 14-year-old boy.

Opposition movements also planned to hold a series of single pickets in Istanbul on 18th February 2021 to deliver the same message. According to TIHR’s information ahead of the planned protests, Turkish police called up activists known to be involved in the Turkmenistani protest movement and warned them that they would be held accountable if they took part in unsanctioned actions in violation of current COVID-19 restrictions. Those targeted believed that the Turkmenistani authorities had informed the Turkish police about the planned protests and provided the names and contact details of activists. People believed to be associated with Turkmenistan’s diplomatic representatives in Turkey also reportedly visited several companies and educational institutions where Turkmenistani migrants work and study, warning them not to participate in opposition events if they wanted to ‘’avoid problems’’ for themselves and their relatives in Turkmenistan. TIHR’s sources reported that the pickets eventually did not take place as planned in Istanbul.

As covered above (see Association), Turkmenistani opposition activists based abroad and their relatives in Turkmenistan have been subjected to different forms of pressure.

New state-organised mass events despite restrictions

As repeatedly covered on the Monitor, the Turkmenistani authorities forcibly mobilise state employees, students and other residents for state-organised mass events with the threat of repercussions for non-compliance. In recent months, there have been fewer such events than usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the Turkmenistani government denies that the pandemic has reached Turkmenistan, it has nevertheless initiated measures aimed at preventing the spread of the Coronavirus, including restrictions on mass events. For example, unlike in previous years, no mass New Year celebrations were organised to welcome 2021. However, some mass events still took place during the reporting period. In particular, local authorities mobilised public sector employees and students to participate in mass celebrations of the Novruz spring holiday in the capital Ashgabat and other parts of the country in March 2021. The same month authorities in the Lebap region also mobilised residents for pompous welcoming ceremonies when the president’s son Serdar Berdymukhamedov, who holds the position of Deputy Prime Minister, visited the region. Recently the personality cult surrounding the president has increasingly extended to his son and the welcome he received and the preparations taken ahead of his visit to the Lebap region were at the same level as those seen during the president’s visits to different parts of the country.

While requiring residents to take part in the mass events described above, authorities failed to ensure that the participants wore masks and practised physical distancing, as required in other contexts. Among others, participants had to travel on overcrowded buses to get to the event venues. Thus, they were exposed to a heightened risk of contracting the Coronavirus.

Source: This article was published by IPHR

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IPHR

International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) is an independent, non-governmental organization founded in 2008. Based in Brussels, IPHR works closely together with civil society groups from different countries to raise human rights concerns at the international level and promote respect for the rights of vulnerable communities.

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