Turkmenistan is one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world. Human rights violations are routine and severe, the right to freedom of expression is severely restricted and all media are controlled by the state. Torture and other ill-treatment is reported to be widespread, and prisoners are held in conditions amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment, and in many cases subjected to enforced disappearances. Deaths in custody are commonplace and uninvestigated. Believers who follow unauthorized religions and critics of the regime risk being imprisoned on fabricated charges. Women face discrimination, and same-sex sexual relations between men remains a criminal offence.
Background Turkmenistan remains effectively closed to human rights monitors and other international monitors. It is very difficult to verify the true extent of human rights violations, due to difficulties in accessing reliable information from within the country and the fact that the country remains closed to international scrutiny. Turkmenistan has rejected or failed to respond to visit requests from various UN Special Procedures. In March, the EU again postponed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Turkmenistan until conditions were met. These included an end to secret detentions and enforced disappearances, forced labour, torture and other ill-treatment of persons forcibly disappeared, and disclosure of their fate or whereabouts, as well as unhindered access for international organisations and independent monitors. The economic crisis which led to shortages of basic necessities such as eggs and bread at the end of 2018 continued, and the standard of living fell further. Media remain under firm state control, routinely focus on the President’s and country’s achievements in all walks of life, and do not report on the economic crisis. The President’s short absences fuelled rumours of his ailing health. In October, the President fired the Interior Minister, Isgender Mulikov, for alleged corruption.
Freedom of Expression According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, Turkmenistan was the third most censored country in 2019. The authorities detained people taking photos or filming in public places, blocked the use of VPN apps, typically used to access otherwise inaccessible websites, and barred people from travelling abroad to prevent them from “slandering” their home country. There was no independent media and the few independent journalists – typically working anonymously for outlets based abroad – faced harassment and arbitrary arrest. On 11 March, Soltan Achilova, an independent freelance journalist, was prevented from boarding an international flight.
Enforced Disappearances The fate and whereabouts of at least 49 prisoners subjected to enforced disappearance after an alleged assassination attempt on then President Saparmurat Niyazov in November 2002 remained unknown. At least nine of those originally convicted for the alleged assassination attempt have since died in prison. The Prove they are Alive Campaign lists 81 prisoners whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Prisoners of Conscience According to Forum18, seven Jehovah’s witnesses are currently serving jail sentences of between one and four years because of their conscientious refusal to do military service. Among them is Bahtiyar Atahanov, a 19-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, who was sentenced on 15 July to four years’ imprisonment.
In April, the UN Human Rights Committee found that two Jehovah’s Witnesses had been convicted on fabricated charges of possession of pornography in violation of their right to freedom of religion. The Committee also found that one of the men had been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment because he was repeatedly beaten by prison officials on his head and in his stomach and kidneys until he was left unconscious. He was also threatened with rape and beaten by a group of prisoners in the prison colony. Neither of the men was represented by a lawyer during legal proceedings. Both were subsequently released under presidential amnesties.
Gulgeldy Annaniyazov’s sentence, which was due to be completed in 2019, was extended by five years for unknown reasons. He was originally arrested in 1995 for helping to organize a peaceful demonstration in Ashgabat, the capital, demanding democratic elections and protesting economic hardships. He was released under an amnesty and in 2002 fled to Kazakhstan, only to be arrested for allegedly traveling on a false passport. He was released and granted refugee status and resettled in Norway in 2002 with his wife and son. He returned to Turkmenistan in 2008, where he was arrested and sentenced for a further 11 years, a sentence that was due to expire this year. In March 2019, he saw his family for the first time since 2008.
Rights of Women Despite declarations in law that men and women are equal, a number of restrictions concerning travel, dress and driving have been introduced which disproportionately affect women.
For instance, the requirement to wear national dress which was introduced under the previous president is periodically reinforced, and while men are required to wear dark suits and ties, women must spend money on expensive national costumes. There were continued reports that women drivers were pulled over by police who searched their vehicles and confiscated their licenses. In March, RFE/RL reported that female employees of Turkmenistan’s Interior Ministry were told they should no longer drive if they want to keep their jobs.
Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people Consensual same-sex sexual relations between men remained a criminal offence punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. Widespread societal homophobia and transphobia means that LGBTI persons are highly vulnerable to torture or other ill-treatment, sexual abuse, and extortion at the hands of the police. They also come under severe pressure from their families who seek to protect “the family honour” by imposing forced marriages.