Turkmenistan: Threats against relatives of dissidents living abroad.
“We call for an end to the persecution of the families of activists and respect for freedom of expression”
(Vienna, May 13, 2021) – According to information published today by four independent human rights organizations, at the beginning of May 2021 Turkmen security officials interrogated a 14-year-old teenager in retaliation for the opposition views of his uncle, a Turkmen activist and journalist based in Turkey.
These threats represent a wide-ranging harassment campaign against civic activist Rozybay Jumamuradov, and also indicate an increase in cases of harassment by the Turkmen authorities of critics of the regime living outside the country through their relatives in Turkmenistan.
The human rights organizations «Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights» (TIHR), «International Partnership for Human Rights» (IPHR), «Human Rights Watch» and «Amnesty International» call on the Turkmen authorities to immediately stop the persecution of relatives of dissidents living abroad, as well as respect the principles of freedom of expression and fundamental human rights in Turkmenistan.
“For several decades, the Turkmen authorities have been systematically depriving people of the right to freedom of expression in the country,” - said Farid Tukhbatullin, head of TIHR. “Special services intimidate and persecute relatives in order to put pressure on activists living outside the country and openly expressing their position in relation to the current regime. The authorities are using this shameful practice to silence activists and stop covering hot topics such as the economic crisis in Turkmenistan.”
In recent months, criticism of the current regime and the policies pursued by the Turkmen authorities has intensified on social networks, as well as an anti-government protest movement among representatives of the Turkmen diaspora abroad has intensified. The surge in civic activism came amid government denial of the coronavirus epidemic, a severe, protracted socio-economic crisis in the country, and the authorities' failure to ensure food security and provide social protection measures.
The response of the Turkmen authorities to the manifestation of growing discontent was the tightening of repression against critics of the current regime.
Jumamuradov told the «Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights» that on May 4, the Turkmen security services in the Lebap region called his nephew to the police. They interrogated the young man about his uncle's activities and how often he maintains contact with a relative and on what topics they communicate.
According to Jumamuradov, law enforcement officers cursed, shouted and threatened the teenager that they would put him and his parents in jail for maintaining relations with a relative. Then the boy's mother was brought to the police station and, also intimidating, they interrogated her in front of her son, and treated both of them like criminals. After that, they were photographed in full face and profile, and both were allowed to go home.
The May 4 incidents were preceded by earlier instances of intimidation of members of Jumamuradov's family. April 26, 2021 Ministry of National Security officers summoned the boy's father for questioning. March 21, 2021 unknown people called the family and threatened to kill if the family did not stop communicating with Rozybay Jumamuradov.
“It is shocking that a child was interrogated by the security forces to intimidate and silence his activist uncle,” said Brigitte Dufort, director of the «International Partnership for Human Rights». “This suggests that the authorities are going to any lengths to continue the relentless fight against dissent.”
Rozybay Jumamuradov criticized the Turkmen government by participating in political discussions on social media along with members of the Turkmen opposition movement. In July 2020, in Istanbul, he took part in a peaceful protest against the policies of the Turkmen government, which was dispersed by the Turkish police. Previously, he worked as a correspondent for the Turkmen service of Radio «Liberty», headquartered in Prague. Due to persecution, he was forced to leave the country in 2009, after the secret services became aware of his collaboration with Radio Liberty. Since 2011 he has been living in Turkey.
Threats against Jumamuradov's relatives are a clear example of the growing pressure and persecution by the authorities of relatives of civil activists living abroad.
"For many years, Turkmenistan has been a country denied access to the international community for independent human rights assessments," - said Marie Struthers, «Amnesty International's» director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “The practice of harassing relatives of foreign oppositionists shows what measures the government can take to cover up massive human rights violations in Turkmenistan.”
Dovlet Baikhan, a German-based video blogger who criticizes the policies of the Turkmen authorities, has also been targeted. Baikhan, a former journalist, told the «Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights» that officials from the Turkmen Ministry of National Security have repeatedly intimidated his relatives who live in the city of Mary in Turkmenistan.
Baikhan said that two of his relatives were fired from their jobs in early April in retaliation for his opposition activities. Officials warned his relative, whose son is currently serving in the army, that their son might not return alive if Baikhan did not stop his opposition activities.
In his blog, Baikhan covers various topics related to the socio-political life of Turkmenistan. He recently criticized the election of President Berdymukhammedov to the post of chairman of the new chamber of the Parliament of Turkmenistan, in violation of the article of the Constitution, according to which the incumbent president cannot be a member of Parliament. Earlier, when Baikhan lived in Turkey, he was a freelance correspondent for the Turkmen service of «Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty» for several years. The activist was forced to leave Turkey in 2019 after being intimidated and harassed by the Turkmen security services and Turkish law enforcement agencies.
During the past year, human rights organizations recorded several other cases of pressure against relatives of civil activists living abroad.
“Turkmenistan's international partners should speak out in support of Turkmen activists whose families are facing government retaliation and harassment,” - said Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of Europe and Central Asia at «Human Rights Watch». "They should insist that the authorities stop the persecution and instead focus on the serious issues that civil society activists are reporting."