AUTHOR OF THE REPORT: RUSLAN MYATIEV, EDITOR OF TURKMEN.NEWS
PHOTO: Soltan Achilova, Turkmen journalist
1/ KEY FINDINGS
In 2022, the government of Turkmenistan continued to persecute political opponents and those who publicly expressed a negative opinion about the regime. As in previous years, there were numerous cases of attacks against media workers. These included threats and provocations against bloggers and activists both in Turkmenistan and abroad, as well as attacks on their relatives.
It is worth noting that in 2022 the leadership of Turkmenistan introduced legislation aimed at “neutralising” critics of the regime living outside of Turkmenistan via ordering their deportation. In September, at the request of the Turkmen authorities, Turkey cancelled visa-free travel for Turkmen citizens. As of October 10, the Turkish Migration Department stepped up its fight against illegal migrants, as well as against those with expired residence permits.
In addition to this, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s decision to join the Organization of Turkic Speaking States (OTS) was based in part on Turkey’s willingness to help oppress opposition-supporting labour migrants and civil activists in the country. There has, however, been no increase in repression from Turkey thus far, and the question of Turkmenistan’s full membership remains unresolved.
According to open-source information, there were at least 15 cases of arrests, arbitrary detention, torture, violent interrogations, intimidation and harassment of bloggers, activists and their relatives in 2022. In addition to this, there was an increase in the number of non-physical attacks, such as authorities or pro-government supporters using psychological means to force an individual to stop protesting or disagreeing with the government.
In 2022, the government introduced a number of measures aimed, ostensibly, at strengthening and ensuring cybersecurity. In reality, these were simply means to consolidate its total control over the internet and civil society. IP addresses are regularly blocked, and internet access is frequently shut down.
According to experts in Turkmenistan, there are actually two or three times as many cases of physical, non-physical and legal attacks on media workers on social media than what is publicly known. Many targeted people do not publicly disclose cases of abuse for fear of losing their jobs, being detained on trumped-up charges, being beaten or abused, or for fear that they or their relatives will be ostracised by their colleagues, neighbours and friends.
It should be noted that the publication of these reports on attacks against media workers also have positive effects. In 2022, authorities freed Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, a lawyer who had been sentenced to 6 years in prison after having been falsely accused of hooliganism in 2020. In addition to this, the President of Turkmenistan pardoned Dr. Khursanai Ismatullayeva, who was sentenced to 9 years in prison on false charges of fraud, on September 7, 2021.
At the end of 2022, authorities released political prisoner Seryozha Babaniyazov, who had been sentenced in February 2021 to 2 years in prison, allegedly for distributing pornography. Babaniyazov was, in reality, being persecuted for posting a comment about a YouTube video on a political opposition channel. A programmer from the city of Mary, Dmitry Medvedev, was also released, having been sentenced to 4 years in prison for allegedly committing fraud while undergoing aid work following a hurricane in the region. These individuals, amongst others, have been featured in previous reports published by Justice for Journalists. Unfortunately, other political prisoners who have been mentioned in previous reports, such as Nurgeldy Halykov, Murat Dushemov, Mansur Mingelov, Murad Ovezov and Allamurat Korkhanov, remain in custody.
2/ THE POLITICAL SITUATION AND THE MEDIA IN TURKMENISTAN
Since 2015, Turkmenistan has consistently held some of the lowest positions (between 177th and 180th place) since 2015. In 2022, Turkmenistan was ranked 177th, between Myanmar and Iran. These figures clearly demonstrate the totalitarian nature of the Turkmen regime, in which there is a complete absence of democracy, civil liberty and independent media.
According to the Freedom House report Freedom in the World 2022 Turkmenistan scored 2/100 points (being classed as a “not free” country). Only Syria and Sudan, both of whom scored only 1 point, came lower in the rankings.
The most important political event in the country was the 2022 presidential elections, in which Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s son, Serdar, became president. Observers noted that the elections did not lead to any positive changes in the political, public or personal lives of the Turkmen people. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow remains the de facto leader, and his cult of personality is as prominent as ever. This can be seen in local television reports, which depict at great length how “Arkadag” (the official title of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow) takes part in a variety of ceremonial events and meetings.
Observers, both in Turkmenistan and abroad, point to several signs that this election (like all elections in the past) was rigged. The speed with which many of the constituent processes were carried out – from the nomination of candidates, to the conduct of the election campaign and the speed with which the results were announced, are all proof of this.
This was accompanied by a lack of transparency in the district election commissions. In February, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow announced that he had decided to step down and “hand over control” to the younger generation, while he himself would become chairman of the Halk Maslakhaty, the upper house of the Turkmen parliament. On March 12, just a month later, the election took place, and, according to the Central Election Commission of Turkmenistan, Serdar Berdimuhamedow won, with 72.97% of the vote.
The Turkmen media remains under total state control. Surveillance of internet users increased in 2022. Authorities introduced a number of strict measures to restrict the population’s access to the internet, blocked IP addresses, and tracked down those who installed VPNs.
The editors of print publications, television channels and radio stations are all appointed and dismissed by presidential decree. All editorial offices, television, and radio programmes go through a number of stages of censorship before broadcast. All content is analysed and approved by a representative of the State Committee for the Protection of Secrets. As was the case during Soviet times, nothing is published or broadcast without official permission.
Media workers in Turkmenistan are closely controlled and monitored by employees of the Ministry of National Security of Turkmenistan (MNS). Each newsroom has an appointed curator from the MNS, who regularly meets with the team of reporters, as well as managers. There were no recorded cases of attacks against state-appointed media workers carried out by law enforcement in 2022. Turkmen media workers, who live in constant fear of losing their jobs, are forced to demonstrate their loyalty to the government, show humility and obedience, and only report on “achievements and successes” or “the wellbeing of the people and prosperity of the country under the wise leadership of Arkadag/Serdar”.
3/ PHYSICAL ATTACKS AND THREATS TO LIFE, LIBERTY AND HEALTH
In 2022, there were reports of attacks (both in Turkmenistan and abroad) against those who criticised the policies of the authorities of Turkmenistan on social media or via independent media outlets. These criticisms included comments posted on social media, or even simply liking a post expressing an opinion that disagreed with state propaganda.
Anyone accused of such a “crime” is added to the list of “unreliable people” and becomes a subject of constant supervision by the employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of National Security. This includes the accused having their phones tapped and their contacts traced.
In 2022, it was revealed that Agadjuma Bayramov from the Serhetabad district was subjected to torture while serving a 6-year prison sentence. Bayramov was arrested for his political views and making critical comments about Berdimuhamedow’s domestic policy. Prior to this, he had already been under the supervision of the local department of the Ministry of National Security. However, in 2016, after a series of interviews with Radio Azatlyk journalist Soltan Achilova, MNS employees falsely accused Bayramov of committing a crime. A man and two women approached him, asking for a place to stay for the night. Bayramov let them into his home. In the middle of the night, one of the women began to scream, and accused him of sexually assaulting her. As a result, Bayramov was sentenced to 6 years in prison, 2 of which were spent in the Owadan-depe prison in the Karakum desert. Bayramov was released in 2022 and revealed that he had been subjected to torture for the duration of his imprisonment, leading to health issues including hearing damage.
In March 2022, Rozygul Baltayeva and her daughter were assaulted by 15 employees of the Ministry of National Security and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who broke into Baltayeva’s home and forcibly conducted a search, during which computer equipment was seized. Both were taken into police custody, where they were interrogated and threatened with being sent to a psychiatric facility. These threats were made as a result of Rozygul posting online about her daughter’s health problems.
In October, in Istanbul, unidentified individuals attacked Shamil Kurbandurdyev, the son of activist Rozymurad Kurbandurdyev. The attackers later admitted that they were following orders. Shamil has never been seen protesting or committing any other infraction against the Turkmen regime. He was attacked because his father was part of a group of activists who delivered a letter to the Turkmen consulate in Istanbul in August addressed to President Berdimuhamedow. As a result, Rozymurad Kurbandurdyev was beaten. The attack on his son is a blatant attempt to intimidate Turkmen migrants in Turkey.
4/ NON-PHYSICAL AND/OR CYBER-ATTACKS AND THREATS
One of the most common forms of emotional and psychological pressure used by employees of the Ministry of National Security and the police of Turkmenistan are non-physical attacks. These include verbal threats, damaging belongings and property, sowing discord amongst families, as well as spreading rumours amongst friends and family. The Ministry of National Security and the Ministry of Internal Affairs often use individuals previously accused of a crime, or those under their supervision, as part of these intimidation tactics.
In 2022, there were a number of reports about cases of government employees and law enforcement officers spreading rumours about individuals, openly threatening to have people fired and threatening their children or their family overseas. These attacks were carried out in order to ensure that citizens living in Turkmenistan did not maintain any contact with their “outcast” relatives, pressuring the latter to stop “slandering” the country and the president, and return to their homeland. At the request of the victims, these cases were not made public.
Independent journalist Soltan Achilova has been subjected to significant psychological pressure by Turkmenistan’s security services for many years. Achilova, who is now 72, remains under constant surveillance. MNS officers confront anyone with whom Achilova has any contact and constantly spread rumours about her, alleging that she is associated with Western subversive groups and is a traitor to her country. The authorities have created an exclusion zone around the journalist, as people avoid any contact with the MNS.
On January 26, 2022, an unknown individual broke the air conditioning unit outside Achilova’s apartment, where she lives on the ground floor with her disabled son. At 01:50, the journalist and her son woke up in response to a noise, looked out the window and saw a man in a yellow vest running away. These vests are typically worn by utility workers.
Many other citizens of Turkmenistan live under constant surveillance because of their communication with independent media outlets. One such individual is Agadjuma Bayramov, who was sentenced to 6 years in prison following an interview with Radio Azatlyk, and who was tortured in prison. After his release in 2022, he was forbidden from meeting with relatives, and from communicating with either the prosecutor’s office or the presidential administration.
Arzuv Dzhepbarova, who lives in Ashgabat, was subjected to a psychological attack. Dzhepbarova’s discussion of cases of extortion in schools and other violations of children’s rights were published in the Chronicles of Turkmenistan in 2019. Since then, Arzuv and her daughter have been under the supervision of the security services, having been labelled “unreliable” citizens.
Levels of supervision typically intensify during major political events. The presidential election in 2022 was no exception. In 2022, there was significant pressure placed on the relatives of anyone considered to be politically active while overseas, including those who took part in protests or criticised the Turkmen regime on TikTok or YouTube.
5/ ATTACKS VIA JUDICIAL AND/OR ECONOMIC MEANS
In 2022, attacks via judicial and/or economic means were directed mainly at the relatives of Turkmen bloggers and civil activists who gave interviews to independent media outlets or criticised the regime on social media.
The arbitrary detentions of relatives and the ensuing interrogation and threats were aimed primarily at influencing the family members of those who criticised the authorities.
- On February 21, the parents of activist Rozygeldi Choliev, who had been uploading videos critical of the Turkmen leadership on YouTube since 2020, were summoned to the Ashgabat city police department. Two men (one in civilian clothes) then told the Choliev family that they could secure a larger apartment for themselves and their children, on the condition that Choliev stop posting on social media and return to Turkmenistan. However, Choliev’s 62-year-old mother did not believe their promises and answered: “If my son is guilty of something, then let him face the law himself” – after which, the tone of the interrogation shifted dramatically. Authorities hurled threats at the family, and they threatened to bring Choliev back to Turkmenistan. Choliev’s mother had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance accompanied by police.
- On March 12, police officers armed with machine guns broke into the apartment of Turkmen activist Aziz Mammadov in Istanbul. Turkish police had been tipped off by the Turkmen diplomatic mission. An unknown person left flowers at the door of Mammadov’s apartment, as well as an envelope with the names of Mammadov and two other participants in the protest movement – Nurmukhammet Annaev and Farhat Meymankuliev – and bags containing an unknown grey substance, metal balls and a bottle containing an unknown liquid. Reports from 2021 show that Mammadov, Annaev and Meymankuliev, all of whom were active Turkmen protesters in Istanbul, were severely beaten in the Turkmen embassy in Turkey.
- On March 14, during a campaign meeting for the presidential election in Turkmenabat, one woman (whose name is unknown) tried to go up on stage and express her opinion about the election. However, she was not allowed near the microphone. She began to shout that the elections were a sham, and that life was not getting any better. She went on to say that she would not vote and would not take the small sum of money given to her on behalf of the President on March 8 (60 manats, or around $17). The woman was removed from the building and was arrested later that day. As a result, the woman spent 7 days in a temporary detention centre.
- On March 31, a court in Turkey released activist Vep Orazmukhamedov from a deportation camp after he had been arrested at the request of the Turkmen authorities under Interpol code No.87. Orazmukhamedov was one of the first activists to post videos on YouTube expressing his opinion about the problems facing Turkmen citizens.
- On April 13, an activist from the unregistered opposition party Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan (DCT), Zarine Akhtyamova, who lives in Turkey, spoke about the persecution of her parents in Turkmenistan. She was accused of participating in a terrorist group, while police threatened to arrest her parents if they did not force their daughter to stop talking publicly about the situation in Turkmenistan and taking part in protests in Turkey. Zarine’s 74-year-old father had a heart attack shortly after. In her final video message, she said that the consulate was preparing the documents for her extradition to Turkmenistan. She urged like-minded people to come together and believe that victory over the Berdimuhamedow regime was possible. Her current whereabouts are unknown.
- The family of Alisher Zainullin, 33, who lives in Germany and posts videos criticising the Turkmen regime on YouTube and TikTok, was also subjected to arbitrary detention, illegal interrogation and threats from police. On September 8, 2022, in the city of Turkmenbashi, Alisher’s brother Renat was summoned for questioning. The officers demanded that Alisher stop criticising the authorities, or else they would continue their attacks against his family and bring him back to Turkmenistan. According to the activist, Renat was illegally detained by the police for 20 days, then fired from his job. The police also detained and interrogated Alisher’s ex-girlfriend, Malika, who was shown a video from a protest in Warsaw on August 27 in which Zainullin can be seen.
- On October 29, in Istanbul, activist and TikToker Nurberdy Bazarov, a critic of the Berdimuhamedow regime, was detained at the request of the Turkmen authorities. He was allegedly in possession of drugs. This was, however, believed to be simply an excuse to send Bazarov to a deportation centre.
- On November 5, 2022, in the city of Bayramaly, four members of the security services arrested the parents of 35-year-old Merdan Ilyasov and took them to an unknown location. Ilyasov had been working as a chef in Turkey since 2019. Turkmen security forces were able to establish his whereabouts, and in early February came to the home of the activist’s relatives and threatened them. Police also interrogated Ilyasov’s ex-wife, whom he occasionally called in order to talk with his child. “My parents asked me not to take part in conversations with other activists, to not comment on events in Turkmenistan and to stop criticising the regime. I’m sure they were just being told what to say, because they were using words they don’t normally use. They don’t even know what some of them mean,” Ilyasov said.
- Suleyman Bayramgeldiev was regularly subjected to judicial pressure after traffic police illegally confiscated his car and phone, before taking him to the police station.The story went viral online. Police officers went on to detain Bayramgeldiev several times without cause and held him in police custody for several hours at a time.
ANNEX 1: OPEN SOURCES USED FOR GATHERING DATA (TURKMENISTAN)
- Current Time – Russian-language television channel with editorial office in Prague, created by the US organisations Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
- Chronicles of Turkmenistan (Austria) – a publication of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.
- Orient – News agency in Turkmenistan.
- Radio Azatlyk (Czech Republic) – the Turkmen Service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.
- Turkmenistan State News Agency – state-owned news agency in Turkmenistan
- Turkmen.news – an independent news and human rights organisation based in Netherlands.
- Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (THF) – an independent non-governmental organization founded on 21 of July 2003 in the city of Varna, Bulgaria. THF is a society of voluntary citizens engaged in monitoring the human rights situation in Turkmenistan.