ISSN 2330-717X

Turkmenistan: Government Targets Critics At Home And Abroad In Crackdown On Dissent – OpEd

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This update covers developments relating to the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Turkmenistan from April to August 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.

During this period, Turkmenistan’s government continued its crackdown on dissent, targeting critical voices in- and outside the country, as well as their relatives. Two Turkmenistan-based individuals were prosecuted on spurious criminal charges in retaliation for speaking out on issues of concern to them. Activist Murat Dushemov was sentenced to four years in prison after challenging government measures imposed in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, while medical doctor Khursanai Ismatullaeva was criminally prosecuted after seeking support from exile-based human rights groups in her struggle to obtain justice for her unfair dismissal. Her detention came the day after her case was raised at a European Parliament event devoted to Central Asia.

At the initiative of the Turkmenistani authorities, Turkish police dispersed Turkmen citizens who gathered outside the country’s consulate in Istanbul on 1st August 2021 to peacefully protest against the regime’s repressive policies. Ten people were detained and held for several days. A group of provocateurs also attacked the protesters, shouting at them to ‘’go home’’,injuring two people. In connection with the protest, blogger Farhad Durdyev reported being arbitrarily held at the premises of the consulate and being beaten and pressured to apologise for his videos which were critical of the government.

The Turkmenistani authorities increasingly targeted activists living abroad through their relatives inside the country. In several cases, authorities attempted to pressure such activists to stop criticising the government on social media by intimidating and harassing their Turkmenistan-based relatives, including children. As part of ongoing efforts to track down government critics, the authorities also recruited informants to report on people who have recently returned from abroad.

TIHR and other exile-based Turkmenistani organisations came under renewed pressure because of their independent reporting on the situation in Turkmenistan. TIHR’s website was subjected to a massive cyberattack in May 2021, and its YouTube channel was taken down in the same month based on copyright complaints filed by a government associated account. As a result, the organisation was silenced on this social media platform where its videos had attracted millions of views. The Turkmenistani authorities also continued their campaign against virtual private networks (VPNs), tools used by citizens to access independent Turkmenistan-covering sites, social media platforms and other online resources that have been blocked in the country. As part of this campaign, citizens were reportedly being forced to swear on the Koran that they will not use VPNs when applying for internet connections.

Despite the risk of the spread of COVID-19, the Turkmenistani authorities mobilised residents for new state-organised mass events in violation of the right to voluntary participation in assemblies. The exceptional heat wave recorded in Turkmenistan in summer 2021 made such events particularly challenging for the participants, including school children, who were forced to spend hours in the hot sun dressed in warm national costumes without being allowed to drink anything.

The government continued its policy of COVID-19 denial, resulting in it being one of the few countries in the world (along with North Korea and some small island nations) to have reported no COVID-19 cases since the start of the global pandemic. At the same time, independent sources reported on a new wave of the pandemic in the country, with the authorities stepping up COVID-19 preventive measures, including by initiating a programme of compulsory vaccination for citizens over 18.

The authorities also continued their attempts to cover up the impact of the protracted economic crisis in the country. For example, as the shortage of basic food products sold at subsidised prices resulted in long lines outside state stores, the authorities sought to reduce these lines by restricting the opportunities for citizens to buy products at fixed prices rather than by addressing the shortages of the food products as such.

Association 

Crackdown on outspoken activists

As documented in a report published by IPHR and TIHR in June 2021, over the past year the Turkmenistani government has widened its crackdown on dissent in response to a surge in anti-government criticism on social media and the emergence of an anti-government protest movement abroad. As part of this campaign, the authorities have targeted activists in- and outside the country, as well as their relatives.

Activist imprisoned after challenging COVID-19 related policies

On 16th August 2021, a local court in the city of Dashoguz reportedly sentenced Murat Dushemov to four years in prison on criminal charges believed to have been initiated in retaliation for his civic engagement. Dushemov has repeatedly posted online appeals critical of the government, and the sentence against him came after he questioned measures imposed in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, which the government insists has not spread to Turkmenistan.

According to available information, Dushemov was convicted on charges of extortion and deliberately inflicting harm to the health of others (under articles 232 and 108 of Turkmenistan’s Criminal Code). The extortion charges were related to an incident at an Ashgabat health clinic in mid-June 2021, of which Dushemov posted a video on his YouTube channel. During the filmed incident, Dushemov asked a doctor at the clinic to explain the rules for COVID-19 vaccinations in the country and to show him the government order based on which compulsory vaccinations are carried out. The activist made these inquiries after his mother was required to undergo vaccination. The doctor told him that she does not have any order but that they have been ‘’told to vaccinate elderly people’’. When the activist persisted with his questions, the doctor threatened to file a complaint against him with the prosecutor. According to Dushemov, the day after his visit to the health clinic, a local court fined him 100 manat (about USD 28) for allegedly swearing in public, an administrative offence. This decision was upheld on appeal. The subsequent criminal charges against Dushemov were based on a complaint by the chief doctor at the clinic, who alleged that the activist had sought to extort money in exchange for not publishing the video of his visit to the clinic.

Separate criminal charges of inflicting harm to the health of others initiated against Dushemov were related to another incident, in which he allegedly got into a fight and injured two co-detainees when serving his 15 day sentence of administrative arrest handed to him over a protest action. The activist’s relatives and rights defenders are convinced that the alleged fight was staged in order to keep the activist behind bars. Dushemov was sentenced to 15 days’ arrest on 7th July 2021, after he, together with one of his friends and the friend’s wife were detained when travelling by car from Ashgabat to Dashoguz. The three were stopped at a police checkpoint and asked to present negative results of Coronavirus tests, in response to which they demanded to see the official document for the basis of such a request. The police officer present promised to show the document, but made Dushemov and his co-travellers wait at the side of the road for hours in the hot sun. Finally, in protest, Dushemov’s friend, who was driving the car in which they were travelling, parked the car across the road, thereby blocking traffic. Following this, all three of them were detained. Based on a court decision issued the same day, Dushemov and his friend were each sentenced to 15 days’ arrest for ‘’petty hooliganism’’, while his friend’s wife was fined 100 manat and released. When the period of arrest ended, Dushemov’s friend was released, but Dushemov remained in detention based on the criminal charges filed against him.

Dushemov has also previously been targeted by law enforcement authorities. Last year, on 16th June 2020, security services detainedhim and his mother in Ashgabat after he posted a YouTube appeal in which he criticised both the government and the exile-based opposition and called on political movements to work together with people in the country. Dushemov’s mother was released later the same day, while Dushemov was held for ten days.

In addition, Murat Dushemov’s brother, Alty Dushemov has been subjected to harassment. On 16th June 2021, a law enforcement officer reportedly arrived at the home of Alty Dushemov in the city of Gokdepe outside Ashgabat and detained him and two of his friends after first inquiring about Murat Dushemov. The men were taken to an unknown location and Alty Dushemov’s family were not informed about his whereabouts or the grounds for his detention. Later it was reported that Alty Dushemov and his two friends had all been handed sentences of 10 days’ administrative arrest for allegedly offending a woman unknown to them, following which they were released on 27th July 2021. The actions against Alty Dushemov are believed to have been retaliation for his sharing of information about the case against his brother, as well as his own activism. Shortly before his detention, on 9th July 2021, Alty Dushemov filmed an incident at the office of the municipal telephone company, when he was denied assistance because he refused to wear a mask. To justify his refusal, he referred to the government’s claim that Turkmenistan is Coronavirus-free. The video was posted on YouTube.

Doctor arrested after her case raised at European Parliament event

On 16th July 2021, Turkmenistani law enforcement authorities detained Khursanai Ismatullaeva, an Ashgabat-based doctor who has been struggling for justice for several years in relation to her unfair dismissal. Her detention came the day after her case was raised at an online event organised by members of the European Parliament to discuss the human rights situation in Central Asia with human rights defenders from the region.

According to information from the Netherlands-based Turkmen News, about 10 police officers – some of whom were dressed in plain clothes – apprehended Ismatullaeva in her home, confiscated her telephone and computer equipment and took her away in an unknown direction. For almost two weeks, there was no informationabout her whereabouts or the grounds for her detention. Following this, Turkmen News learned that she was being held in pre-trial detention on charges of extortion (under article 228 of the Criminal Code). Ismatullaeva was accused of allegedly misappropriating funds from the sale of the apartment of an elderly disabled man whom she had treated over the course of several years. According to sources familiar with the case, the man’s apartment was sold in 2019 when he was transferred to a home for the elderly, with the money going to his elderly relative who had asked Ismatullaeva to help care for the man. The doctor received only limited compensation for caring for the man.

Human rights defenders are convinced that the charges against Khursanai Ismatullaeva are trumped up and are being used to penalise her for her speaking out about her case and seeking support from exiled-based human rights groups in her struggle for justice. As published by Turkmen News in November 2020, Ismatullaevawas fired from a neonatal clinic near Ashgabat in 2017 after refusing to prescribe unnecessary paid medical procedures for patients. Her dismissal was sanctioned by a court following a trial marred by irregularities. While the trade union initially supported her claim that her dismissal was unlawful, it changed course during the trial, apparently as a result of pressure. Ismatullaeva subsequently submitted complaints to different state bodies to challenge her dismissal, but to no avail. Other medical facilities refused to hire her as a gynaecologist. As a result of failing to obtain justice in Turkmenistan, she turned abroad for help.

A law enforcement source told Turkmen News that the order to arrest Khursanai Ismatullaeva came from the headquarters of the Ministry of National Security. According to the organisation’s information, the doctor’s family has been unable to hire a lawyer for her since all lawyers approached have refused to take up the case given its sensitive nature. As of late August 2021, Ismatullaeva remained in detention pending trial.

The MEPs, who organised the event on Central Asia on 15th July2021 where Ismatullaeva’s case was raised, issued a statement calling on the Turkmenistani authorities to immediately and unconditionally release her and to allow her to practise her profession without impediment. Human Rights Watch concluded:

“The timing of Ismatullaeva’s detention and the government’s abusive record leave little doubt that authorities are retaliating against her for allowing her case to be heard in an international forum.’’

The NGO also said that the authorities might be trying to intimidate others from speaking out about abuse in Turkmenistan and from contacting human rights groups outside the country to this end.

Intimidation of relatives of activists

As described in the IPHR-TIHR report published in June 2021, the Turkmenistani authorities have increasingly targeted outspoken activists who live abroad through their relatives inside the country. In a joint statement issued in May 2021, TIHR, IPHR, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International expressed concern at this trend and called on the Turkmenistani authorities to immediately end their harassment of relatives of dissidents based abroad.

During the period covered by this update, the following cases of intimidation of the relatives of activists were documented:

  • From March to May 2021, authorities in Turkmenistan’s Lebap region carried out a campaign of intimidation against relatives of Rozybai Jumamuradov, an activist and journalist living in Turkey who has vocally criticised Turkmenistani authorities on social media. He fled Turkmenistan in 2009 to escape persecution after the security services found out about his work as a correspondent for the Prague-based Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Jumamuradov told TIHR that on 4th May 2021, security services summoned his 14-year-old nephew and questioned the boy about his uncle’s activities and his communication with the uncle. The officials cursed and shouted at the teenager and threatened to imprison him and his parents because of their contacts with Jumamuradov. They also brought the boy’s mother to the police station and interrogated and intimidated her in the presence of her son. After taking profile photos of them as if they were criminal suspects, the security service officials released the boy and his mother. Prior to this, on 26th April 2021, national security officials had summoned and questioned the boy’s father, and on 21st March 2021, unidentified people had called the boy’s family and threatened to kill them unless they stopped communicating with Jumamuradov. In a later incident that TIHR learned about, the principal at the school where Jumamuradov’s niece studies threatened the girl with bad grades because of her uncle’s activities. The same principal had previously facilitated the questioning of Jumamuradov’s nephew by arranging for a teacher to take the boy to the police station, in response to a request from the security services.
  • Starting in March 2021, Turkmenistani authorities also went after the relatives of Devlet Bayhan, an activist currently based in Germany who runs a video blog critical of the Turkmenistani authorities and who previously worked as a freelance correspondent for the Turkmen service of RFE/RL in Turkey. Bayhan told TIHR that national security officials visited and threatened his relatives in the city of Mary in Turkmenistan on several occasions, and that two of his relatives were fired from their jobs in April 2021 in retaliation for his activism. Officials also warned one of his family members that their son might not return alive from his conscripted service in the army unless Bayhan quits his activism.
  • In April-May 2021, Turkmenistani authorities attempted to silence Turkey-based social media activist Merdan Joraev by targeting his sister in the city of Turkmenabat. Joraev attracted the authorities’ attention after he beganopenly criticising the Turkmenistani regime on TikTok earlier this year. As reported by the Memorial Human Rights Centre and the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, on 20th April 2021, Joraev’s sister was summoned by the house administration and questioned by unknown people dressed in plain clothes, who warned her to ensure that her brother stops appearing on the internet. Two weeks later, on 4th May 2021, she was again summoned for discussion, with the interrogators threatening to designate her and her family as “traitors’’ and to expel her children from kindergarten and school. On 11th May 2021, unknown people reportedly took her by car to an unknown location and held her for several hours, during which they pressured and threatened her in relation to the activities of her brother. When they finally let her go, they said ‘’it will be worse next time’’. As a result of the pressure, Joraev’s sister told the activist that she could no longer communicate with him because she fears further repercussions. Joraev himself has reported receiving threatening phone calls in Turkey.

Online resources of exile-based NGOs targeted

During the period covered by this update, there were new attempts to obstruct the work of exile-based Turkmenistani NGOs, who report independently about human rights and other developments in Turkmenistan. While the website and social media channels of Austria-based TIHR have previously been blocked in Turkmenistan and are only available with the help of internet censorship circumvention tools such as VPNs, its online resources came under renewed attack in May 2021.

On 14th May 2021, TIHR’s site, The Chronicles of Turkmenistan was subjected to a massive cyberattack, as a result of which the site was loading very slowly and almost stopped working. TIHR is regularly the target of cyberattacks, which it believes are carried out at the orders of the Turkmenistani security services. While TIHR has been able to successfully navigate most cyberattacks, some particularly powerful ones such as the attack in May have caused temporary disruptions to the work of its site.

In May 2021, TIHR’s YouTube channel was also blocked following copyright complaints filed by a government associated account, namely the Watan Habarlary channel belonging to Turkmenistan’s State Committee on Television, Radio Broadcasting and Cinematography. Similar to other Turkmenistan-covering organisations, TIHR has used official footage from Turkmenistani state TV to illustrate its video reports about the situation in the country, without hiding the face that the footage originates from this source. Given the repressive free speech climate in Turkmenistan, it is very difficult and dangerous for independent groups to use footage from their own sources.

At the time of its closure, TIHR’s YouTube channel had around 100,000 followers and close to 50 million views and thus represented an influential source of alternative information on Turkmenistan. There is therefore reason to believe that the authorities were using allegations of copyright infringements as an excuse to silence the channel. According to the assessment by the Netherlands-based Turkmen News, takedown requests filed by the Watan Habarlary account against TIHR and other independent Turkmenistan-covering sitescontradict Turkmenistan’s law, which permits the use of short excerpts from lawfully published works as illustrations in video recordings and other published materials of an educational nature, as long as the source is indicated.While TIHR has been able to restore its presence on YouTube, it will take a long time for the organisation to rebuild its audience.

In May 2021, a YouTube video posted by Turkmen News to highlight the findings of an investigation into government corruptionwhich implicated the president’s nephew, was also blocked. This measure was based on a complaint about copyright violations filed by a design firm that decorated and furnished an exclusive mansion built by the president’s nephew, allegedly using money obtained as a result of the corrupt scheme exposed by the investigation. Turkmen News challenged the takedown decision.

Peaceful Assembly

Participants in protest against the government in Turkey detained, beaten

As previously reported, in the past year, members of Turkmenistani communities abroad have organised several peaceful protests against the policies of the Turkmenistani government. Those involved in such protests, especially in Turkey, as well as their relatives in Turkmenistan have been subjected to pressure.

On 1st August 2021, Turkmenistani activists attempted to hold a new peaceful rally outside Turkmenistan’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to protest against the repressive policies of their country. However, Turkmenistani diplomats called Turkish police, who dispersed the protest participants, claiming that they did not have the required permission from the mayor’s office, although the organisers had notified the Turkish authorities about the protest in advance. According to information from the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, police detained ten citizens of Turkmenistan in connection with the protest and transferred them to a deportation centre, where they were held for a few days before being released. Eyewitnesses also reported that a group of aggressively behaving young men, who were believed to be provocateurs engaged by Turkmenistani authorities, arrived at the protest venue and attacked protesters. A video circulated from the protest showed one of these men shouting obscenities at protesters and demanding that they “go to their country”. According to reports received by TIHR, the men were in particular looking for correspondents for the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, TIHR’s website, among the protesters. The attackers reportedly beat and injured one of the protest participants, who had to be taken away by ambulance, while another activist was beaten and stabbed in the arm and stomach after refusing to hand over his phone with which he had documented the actions of the assailants.

In addition, Turkmenistani blogger Farhad Durdyev reported being arbitrarily detained and ill-treated in connection with the planned protest. According to him, as he was on his way to the protest, two young men in a car approached him and offered him a ride to the protest venue. However, instead, the men forcefully took him into the premises of Turkmenistan’s consulate, where the blogger said he was handed over to consulate representatives and held for several hours, pressured to apologise to the president for posting videos critical of the regime and beaten by several people until he lost consciousness. The blogger said that he was only allowed to leave after a Turkish police officer arrived at the consulate. The injuries he received from the beatings were recorded by a doctor. He reported his experience to the Turkish Ministry of Internal Affairs and other Turkish authorities.

In a further incident of intimidation targeted at Durdyev, a Turkmenistani pro-government blogger published a video in mid-August 2021, in which Durdyev’s mother appeared, tearfully begging the activist not to engage in ‘’destructive’’ activities. In the same video, the pro-government blogger himself lashed out against Durdyev and denounced him and others based abroad as ‘’traitors’’ because they ‘’pour dirt’’ on Turkmenistan. Human rights activists were convinced that the video was orchestrated by the security services.

Residents mobilised for state mass events despite heat

During the period covered by this update, there were new cases in which the Turkmenistani authorities forcibly mobilised residents for state-organised mass events. This practice, repeatedly covered on the Monitor, violates the right of citizens to voluntary participation in assemblies. The exceptional heat wave that Turkmenistan experienced in summer 2021 made the participation in mass events organised during these months particularly challenging.

According to TIHR’s information, on 24th June 2021, residents of the city of Farab in the Lebap region were mobilised to participate in the festive opening of an amusement park, which President Berymukhamedov was expected to attend as he was visiting the region at the time. The participants, dressed in national costumes, were made to wait in the scorching sun for several hours before the start of the celebrations. They were not allowed to drink anything so as not to have to visit the toilet. A young girl lost consciousness due to the heat and was taken away by ambulance. The doctors attending to her at a local hospital reportedly warned her parents not to tell anyone about the incident. The president did not eventually appear at the opening of the amusement park.

In another example reported by the Turkmen service of RFE/RL, school children and teachers were mobilised to attend an event held in a park in the city of Mary on 31st May 2021 to celebrate the International Day for the Protection of Children, which is marked on 1st June 2021. Despite the exceptionally hot weather (with the temperature exceeding 40 degrees Celsius), the participating children were made to wear national costumes and were not given any water to drink for several hours. A parent told Radio Azatlyk’s correspondent that many children were crying because they were so thirsty.

As covered before, while continuing to organise mass state events during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Turkmenistani authorities have failed to ensure that the participants comply with measures to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, such as by wearing masks and practising physical distancing. Although the authorities officially deny that the COVID-19 pandemic has reached Turkmenistan, they have enforced preventive measures in other contexts. In July 2021, TIHR learned that the authorities nevertheless were seeking to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19 during the festivities planned for the 30 year anniversary of Turkmenistan’s independence on 27th September 2021 by vaccinating participants. Thus, students in Ashgabat mobilised to participate in these festivities were all being vaccinated ahead of the week-long rehearsals scheduled to start as of 1st August. As covered above, the government initiated a programme of compulsory vaccination against the Coronavirus of all adult citizens. As of the end of August 2021, the planned rehearsals for the independence celebrations had yet to begin, indicating that the government was reconsidering whether to go ahead with mass celebrations on this occasion.

Expression

New bottom ratings in global free speech surveys

The situation for freedom of speech in Turkmenistan remains extremely repressive, with all national media being controlled by the state, the internet being heavily censored and anyone who criticises the regime running the risk of persecution. As a result of this situation, Turkmenistan has consistently ended up at the bottom of international surveys of the freedom of expression in different countries. In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Borders (RSF) in April 2021, Turkmenistan ranked 178th, with only North Korea and Eritrea behind. In its Global Expression Report, published in July 2021, Article 19 similarly placed Turkmenistan at the end of its freedom of expression rating. Along with Syria and Eritrea, Turkmenistan received a score of one out of a hundred. Only North Korea fared worse, with a score of zero.

Continued campaign against internet circumvention tools

Internet access in Turkmenistan is slow, expensive and heavily restricted, with many news and social media sites having been arbitrarily blocked in the country. As covered in the last update, the authorities have also recently stepped up their efforts to prevent residents from using VPNs to access otherwise unavailable sites. Such services have been systematically blocked in the country and internet users accessing online content critical of the authorities with the help of VPNs have been subjected to intimidation. In August 2021, RFE/RL reported that internet users in the country were being forced to swear on the Koran (the holy book of Muslims) that they will not use VPNs when applying for internet connections.

Recruitment of government informants

The Turkmenistani authorities are engaged in ongoing efforts to monitor and track down critics of the regime. As covered before, they have also recruited informants for this purpose. In July 2021, Radio Azatlyk reported that security service officials in the Lebap region were recruiting family doctors to gather information about citizens who have recently returned from other countries, in particular Russia and Turkey, and conducted special training on this issue. A local resident who spoke to the service’s correspondent said that the authorities were primarily interested in finding out who citizens communicated and interacted with abroad. While international travel has been restricted in Turkmenistan due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has organised chartered flights to bring back citizens from other countries.

Ban on sending letters to the president

The government continues to promote the narrative of Turkmenistan living in an era of happiness and prosperity, in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, the protracted economic crisis and other serious problems in the country. When reporting about their work to state authorities, local officials also typically focus on successes and achievements, while suppressing information about issues of concern. In an example of this approach, TIHR learned that local officials in the city of Bayramali in the Mary region instructed the local post office to stop accepting letters from residents to the president and government ministries out of fear that such letters might reflect badly on their own work. Thus, as of June 2021, residents attempting to send registered letters to these addresses were told that this service had been temporarily suspended.

Ombudsperson’s report paints rosy picture

In April 2021, the office of the ombudsperson for human rights published its annual report for 2020. The report concludes that ‘’the country carries out large-scale work to ensure human rights’’ and praises recent legal and policy initiatives of the government as improving human rights protection. The report does not identify any serious problems with respect to human rights in the country, although it notes that there are some concerns about appeals by citizens not being considered in accordance with the requirements of the law. The ombudsperson’s office said it received 531 complaints from citizens during the year concerning housing, labour rights, migration rules, the implementation of court decisions and other issues. Many of the complaints were passed on to other state bodies.

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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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