Earlier this month, the United Nations Development Program held a workshop together with the ombudsperson’s office in Turkmenistan on “coverage of human rights issues in the media.”
The international organizations that put on these types of training events in Turkmenistan know full well that they are purely performative and mostly pointless.
There are more than enough human rights issues – or violations, to be more exact – for journalists to be covering after all. But these are signally ignored, obviously.
On May 22, RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, reported on how 30-year-old activist and blogger Farhat Meymankuliyev, who appears on YouTube under the name Farhat Durdiyev, had been detained by police in Istanbul. The police took Meymankuliyev into custody at the request of the Turkmen consulate and later transferred him to a deportation processing center in the suburbs, according to his colleagues.
Meymankuliyev earlier claimed in a video uploaded to YouTube that a GPS tracking device had been fitted to his car – an act of surveillance he attributed to Turkmen diplomatic staff.
This is not the first reported run-in the activist has had with the Turkmen consulate. Azatlyk reported in August 2021 that staff at the mission in Istanbul dragged Meymankuliyev into their premises while he was holding a picket and subjected him to an hours-long beating.
It is possible that episodes like these escape the notice of the UNDP and are not, as a result, brought up in workshops.
It will be harder to claim such ignorance in the case of the four political prisoners currently serving their sentences at a facility in the Lebap province who reportedly managed to deliver a letter to UN representatives in Turkmenistan.
Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported on May 22 that Allamyrat Korkhanov, Murat Dushemov, Nurgeldy Khalykov and Murat Ovezov spoke in the letter of being subjected to physical and mental abuse. They also wrote of how they are being denied the right to receive visits and phone calls from relatives. The existence of this letter was first reported by journalist Allamurad Rakhimov on his Azat Turkmenistan YouTube account.
The four men in question were all imprisoned as an apparent reprisal for the trivial act of sharing video and photo footage from inside Turkmenistan that undermined the rosy picture of the country presented by the regime.
In truth, one of the four, Khalykov, barely did even that. The act that landed him behind bars dates to July 2020, when the World Health Organization dispatched an expert mission to Turkmenistan to evaluate how the country was coping with the coronavirus crisis. The government insisted then, and continues to do so now, that not a single person was known to have contracted the virus, despite even the British ambassador at the time, Hugh Philpott, admitting to having been infected with COVID-19.
The activities of the WHO team were accordingly watched with great interest. So, when Khalykov saw that one of his Instagram acquaintances had snapped a photo of the WHO staffers sitting by a hotel pool in Ashgabat, his curiosity was piqued. He then duly shared the photo with a foreign-based Turkmen media outlet. Within one day, he was summoned to a police precinct and later charged with purportedly defaulting on a $5,000 debt and sentenced to four years in prison.
The WHO experts, meanwhile, agreed to nod along with the Turkmen government’s bare-faced mendacity by offering only the meek advice that the government should activate “critical public health measures” only “as if COVID-19 was circulating.”
If the WHO is at all embarrassed about having inadvertently landed Khalykov in prison or worried about his ongoing plight, it has made no show of it.
It was all smiles on May 20, when WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met in Geneva with Turkmen Health and Medical Industry Minister Atageldi Germanov ahead of the start to the World Health Assembly. The Turkmen Foreign Ministry said that talks between the two focused on the usefulness of disseminating information about dangers to public health in a timely fashion.
“Particular attention is paid to education in the field of public health, promotion of healthy lifestyles, prevention and early detection of non-communicable diseases and information campaigns aimed at raising awareness of the importance of a healthy lifestyle,” the ministry said.
Another fundamental human right that is routinely denied to Turkmen citizens is that to leave their own country.
RFE/RL has reported on how large numbers of young people were, around the start of this current academic year, prevented from boarding flights out of Ashgabat on spurious grounds. Similar restrictions are imposed regularly in what looks like the regime’s ham-fisted attempt to prevent entire chunks of the population from emigrating for good.
On May 21, RFE/RL reported that law enforcement officials have come up with a new pretext for stopping men from boarding planes: beards. Last week, one 30-year-old told the broadcaster that police confiscated his passport and said they would not return it until he shaved so that he looked like the image in his ID photo. Similar restrictions have been imposed on people traveling on trains within the country.
Control over foreign travel is further facilitated by bureaucratic meddling and inertia. Chronicles reported on May 22 on how people in the Lebap province wishing to get a foreign travel passport can only apply for them from September at the earliest. One cited cause for this hold-up is that demand is high and Migration Service personnel are too few. A Migration Service employee was cited by Chronicles as saying that applicants for passports in the province has doubled as compared to the numbers that they were seeing in 2018-20.
Similar delays have been reported by Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news, which noted in a May 11 article that it will only be possible to apply for biometric passports in the Mary province starting from October. This is all wonderful news for fraudsters. As Turkmen.news reported, many desperate passport applicants are handing money to soi-disant fixers who promise to expedite the process before inevitably disappearing into the night.
It seems evident to many that these snarls are being created artificially. As Turkmen.news reported in April, the convenient online system for applying for replacement travel documents has ceased to work, which forces people to have to wait in physical, slow-moving lines at their local migration service.
“The paperwork process is lengthy,” Turkmen.news added by way of background. “To obtain a passport within a reasonable timeframe of 30-45 days, you need to find middlemen and pass on bribes to migration service employees. In Mary in February, it was $260. In Dashoguz, the [size of the required bribe] reached $1000.”
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.