Turkmenistan’s human rights record remained abysmal. Critics of the government were subjected to arbitrary detention and conviction under politically motivated criminal charges. Freedom of expression was severely limited as was freedom of religion. Consensual sex between men remained a criminal offence. Forced labour during the cotton harvest continued. The fate and whereabouts of at least 120 prisoners subjected to enforced disappearance remained unknown.
Turkmenistan remained effectively closed to human rights and other international monitors. The authorities continued to deny the occurrence of any Covid-19 cases, yet in July they introduced a mandatory vaccination programme for all adults. The economic crisis of the previous three years continued, leading to increased food prices and shortages of basic foods. In mitigation, the government distributed subsidized food packages to all households. In September, the frequency of these packages was reduced from three times to once per month, which proved inadequate for those most in need.
The authorities continued to stifle peaceful expression of dissent or criticism.
At the end of June, blogger Murat Dushemov filmed an interview with a doctor in a state clinic, in which he asked about the real situation concerning Covid-19 in the country. On 7 July, he was stopped by police at a checkpoint and asked to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test. When he asked for the legal grounds for the request, he was held at the checkpoint for four hours then sentenced to 15 days’ administrative detention after he blocked the road with his car in protest. Murat Dushemov was further charged with assault for purportedly attacking his cell mates – a charge he denied. On 16 August, he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for “intentional medium bodily harm” and “intimidation”, and for having attempted to bribe a doctor.
The authorities attempted to stop protests abroad by putting pressure on demonstrators. On 1 August, a legal protest outside the Turkmenistani consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, was disrupted when consulate staff called police claiming that the protesters were terrorists. Ten were detained for five days. Farhad Durdiev, a blogger and activist, described how two men offered him a lift to the protest in a car with Turkmenistani licence plates but then threatened him and drove him to the back entrance of the consulate where he was beaten by them and Turkmenistani diplomats. He was released a few hours later when Turkish police intervened.
On 15 July the case of Khursanai Ismatullaeva – a doctor who had been attempting to gain redress for being unjustly dismissed from her job at a neonatal clinic in the capital, Ashgabat, in 2017 – was raised at an event organized by the EU parliament. She was arrested the following day and subjected to an enforced disappearance for two weeks until it was revealed that she was being held in a pre-trial detention centre. She was charged with fraud in connection with the sale of the apartment of a man she had cared for, and whose family had agreed to pay her US$600 for looking after him.
Access to the internet remained severely restricted and the authorities blocked numerous sites including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and those offering virtual private networks (VPNs). Internet users reported in August that they were being forced to swear on the Qur’an that they would not use VPNs to access the internet.
Consensual sexual relations between men remained a criminal offence punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment, and at least one case was reported of a man being arrested and charged in August in the city of Turkmenabat.
In Turkmenistan’s Third Periodic Report to the UN Human Rights Committee published in 2020, the government had undertaken to consider decriminalizing consensual sexual relations between men, but no progress was made towards this.
Freedom of religion remained severely restricted and conscientious objectors faced criminal prosecution. In January, six Jehovah’s Witnesses were convicted and imprisoned. A further conviction in March brought the total number of Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned for conscientious objection to 16. On 8 May, all 16 – who were serving sentences of between one and four years – were released under an amnesty. There remained no genuine civilian alternative to military service.
The NGO Forum 18 reported that on 21 July, the first day of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, state security officers raided homes in at least four towns in the eastern Lebap Region and confiscated all Muslim religious literature except the Qur’an.
At an International Labour Conference in May-June, the ILO Committee of Experts expressed “deep concern at the continued practice of forced labour in the cotton sector” and urged the government to eliminate its use. In response, the government denied the use of forced labour.
However, in a report published in March, turkmen.news and the NGO Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights documented the use of forced labour, including child labour, during the cotton harvest in 2020. Women were at particularly high risk as they were more likely to be in poorly paid jobs and unable to participate in the practice of paying for other pickers to take their place. Children aged between 10 and 16 were often hired in place of adults. Furthermore, according to media reports in September, schoolchildren, teachers, public sector workers and others were forcibly sent to pick cotton for the 2021 harvest.
The fate and whereabouts of at least 120 prisoners subjected to enforced disappearance remained unknown. Some were imprisoned after an alleged assassination attempt on then President Saparmurat Niyazov in November 2002.