A change in leadership in Turkmenistan in 2022 did not lead to improvements in its human rights record. The country remained one of the most closed and repressive in the world.
The government tolerates no political pluralism, independent media, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Authorities jail perceived opponents and government critics. The fate and whereabouts of dozens of victims of enforced disappearances remain unknown. The government failed to adequately address a worsening food security crisis. Freedom of movement is subject to substantial restrictions.
Elections and Cult of Personality
On March 12, Serdar Berdymukhamedov won presidential elections after his father, Gurbaguly, resigned the presidency. The eight other candidates aligned themselves with Berdymukhamedovs’ policies. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) did not monitor the vote due to lack of “political pluralism.”
Authorities routinely compel people to attend state events involving the president and his family. The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), a Vienna-based group, reported that in June, hundreds sought medical help and dozens were hospitalized after they were mobilized to participate in an outdoor event for Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s jubilee in 47 degree Celsius (116.6 degrees Fahrenheit) heat.
While the government continued to deny any Covid-19 cases in the country, in October 2021, a source in Turkmenistan’s healthcare system told Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen-language service of the US government-funded Radio Liberty, that about 25,000 people had died from coronavirus-like symptoms. Authorities used Covid-19 as a pretext to keep the county’s borders closed at least through May for nearly all travel, and for several months restricted domestic travel to and from at least two regions.
Poverty and Food Insecurity
Due to lack of reliable data of adequate quality, statistics regarding poverty rates, food security, and income in Turkmenistan are unreliable or nonexistent.
However, public reporting indicates that authorities’ denial and inaction to address a worsening economic crisis and increasing poverty have significantly exacerbated food security. The availability for subsidized food staples has continued to shrink while prices have continued to rise.
In April, Azatlyk reported that police in Ashgabat threatened to jail people for 15 days for purchasing more bread than they are allotted under an uncodified rationing system. In February, police briefly detained customers for this and threatened to fine them for repeat violations.
In January, Azatlyk reported that police in Ashgabat threatened to prosecute residents, mostly pensioners, after they had complained to the Trade Ministry about getting shortchanged on their subsidized food.
Turkmen government tolerates no independent civic activism, systematically harasses and intimidates activists, including in exile, retaliates against their relatives, and severely punishes any peaceful dissent. NGOs are outlawed unless registered and no international human rights organizations have access to the country.
In April, TIHR reported that police and security officers threatened people with whom TIHR correspondent Soltan Achilova had spoken with “serious problems,” and forced them to stop communicating with her.
The Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation (THF), a human rights organization in exile, reported that on August 16, in Istanbul, Turkey, six men, allegedly consulate employees, beat five Turkmen activists in the courtyard of the Turkmen consulate, inflicting head injuries on one of them. The activists, whom consular staff admitted onto the premises, were attempting to deliver an open letter to President Berdymukhamedov regarding the dire situation many Turkmen migrants face abroad.
In February, a 62-year-old woman lost consciousness at an Ashgabat police station and was hospitalized after officers screamed at and frightened her, pressuring her to convince her son, Rozgeldy Choliev, who lives in exile, to return to Turkmenistan and stop criticizing the government.
In May, TIHR learned that Agadjuma Bayramov, who was arrested in 2016 and sentenced to six years on trumped-up charges in retaliation for interviews he had given to Azatlyk, had been released. According to TIHR, since Bayramov’s release authorities have repeatedly prevented him from undertaking any domestic travel and ordered his family and relatives to cease communicating with him. In June, Bayramov went to Ashgabat to visit his sons, but police detained and escorted him back to his village in Mary province. In November he was allowed to visit relatives also living in Mary province.
In August, Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen Citizens, a Prague-based group, reported that security services had made threats against its social media editor, who lives outside the country.
Freedom of Media and Information
Authorities strictly monitor access to information. The state owns or controls all print and electronic media. Social networks and messaging apps are blocked. The country remained closed to independent foreign and Turkmen media outlets.
Although Turkmen law does not outlaw Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), it bans “uncertified” encryption programs and criminalizes “deliberately providing illegal services that provide technical programs” online, for which the penalty is imprisonment for up to seven years.
Independent media reported that authorities continued to intermittently block access to the internet and the Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Azatlyk described full or partial internet disruptions and blocking of VPNs in late 2021 and in five non-consecutive months of 2022. In July, it reported that authorities across the country threatened to imprison information technology specialists who provided VPN installation services.
In February, Azatlyk reported that police interrogated citizens suspected of using VPNs and threatened them with criminal prosecution. In January Ashgabat authorities reportedly inspected mobile phones of students of one of the capital’s engineering schools, threatened them with expulsion for accessing social media and the websites of “banned” outlets.
Cloudfare Radar, a US-based internet infrastructure provider, reported in mid-April “near complete internet shutdown” in Turkmenistan for almost two days.
Turkmen.news reported in February that authorities started to block entire subnets, which facilitate more efficient network traffic, of providers providing virtual/dedicated server services. In September, it reported that the blocking of subnets continued and access to IMO messenger, and a Behance platform, popular among artists, had been jammed.
Freedom of Movement
Turkmenistan’s government continued to arbitrarily deny its citizens’ right to freedom of movement. Foreign and domestic travel is heavily restricted and monitored.
In April, Azatlyk reported that police in Ashgabat conducted mass raids against domestic migrant workers, detained, and beat them, with one man sustaining a fractured jaw. In January, authorities expelled from Ashgabat and Akhal province nearly 250 internal migrant workers from Lebap region because they lacked “special permits” from regional administration and migration authorities.
The government continued to refuse to renew expiring passports for many Turkmen citizens residing abroad, exposing them to the risk of a range of human rights violations.
Political Prisoners, Enforced Disappearances, Torture
The Turkmen government subjects individuals who have fallen out of favor with authorities to lengthy prison sentences following unfair and closed trials. The exact number of individuals imprisoned on what appear to be politically motivated charges is unknown. Dozens have disappeared in the country’s prison system, some for as long as 20 years. Authorities barred their families from any contact with their loved ones and refused to provide them with information about their fate or whereabouts. Torture is widespread in Turkmen prisons.
According to Prove They Are Alive, an international campaign dedicated to ending enforced disappearances in Turkmenistan, an estimated 162 people have been forcibly disappeared in Turkmen prisons. At least 27 of them died in prison in solitary confinement. The terms of nearly three dozen have expired or were scheduled to expire in 2022, but their fate and whereabouts remain unknown.
On December 10, authorities released Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, a lawyer sentenced to a six-year prison term in September 2020 on bogus charges for alleged connections with activists abroad. In May, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had found Allaberdyev’s detention to be arbitrary and called for his immediate release.
Numerous others continued to serve out prison sentences on bogus, politically motivated, charges. These included 26-year-old Nurgeldy Khalykov, a Turkmen.news freelance correspondent, sentenced in 2020 to four years on fabricated fraud charges. The outlet stated that every time it flagged Khalykov’s case, authorities retaliated by placing him in solitary confinement.
They also included Mansur Mengelov, an activist for Baloch minority rights, sentenced to 22 years imprisonment in an unfair trial in 2012; Khursanai Ismatullaeva, a doctor sentenced in 2021 on bogus fraud charges; activist Murad Dushemov, sentenced in 2021 to four years for publicly demanding access to information about the Covid-19; YouTube blogger Murat Ovezov, sentenced in 2020 to five years on bogus fraud charges for openly expressing his critical views online; and Seryozha Babaniyazov, sentenced to two years in 2021 on bogus pornography charges, in retaliation for posting leaflets criticizing corruption in Balkanabat.
Political dissident Gulgeldy Annaniyazov remained on a five-year term of forced internal exile, after his 11-year sentence on politically motivated charges ended in March 2019.
Key International Actors
Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina J. Mohammed, during her June trip to Turkmenistan, discussed the “inviolability of human rights, gender equality and empowerment of women and girls” with senior government officials, including Berdymukhamedov.
European Union Special Representative (EUSR) for Central Asia Ambassador Terhi Hakala visited Turkmenistan in December 2021, and in May 2022 and met with Berdymukhamedov. She did not publicly raise rights abuses. In its statement on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, the EU flagged its concern about the fate of people subjected to enforced disappearances and urged the authorities to acknowledge and eradicate the problem.
In April, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended the redesignation of Turkmenistan as a “country of particular concern” for “systematic and egregious" religious freedom violations, as well as the use of targeted sanctions on responsible government agencies and officials. In July, the US State Department’s human trafficking report in 2022 again placed Turkmenistan in the lowest category, “Tier 3,” citing a “government policy or pattern of forced labor.”
In September, the US mission to the OSCE during the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference made critical comments about the presidential election and noted that it “resulted in a dynastic transfer of power.”
In November 2021, members of US Congress wrote a letter to then-President Bedymukhamedov calling for release of several “political prisoners,” including Halykov, Ismatullaeva, and Annaniyazov.
The World Bank, for the second consecutive year, excluded Turkmenistan from its annual report due to the lack of reliable data.
In February, World Trade Organization (WTO) members approved opening accession talks with Turkmenistan.