December 9, 2016
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah
Olympic Council of Asia and,
Association of National Olympic Committees
P.O. Box 6706, 32042, Hawalli, Kuwait
Subject: 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games
Dear OCA and ANOC President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah,
We are writing in advance of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) to be held in September 2017 in Ashgabat to share with you information about the dire state of human rights in Turkmenistan and to urge the Olympic Council of Asia to seek human rights improvements in that country in the lead-up to the Games, in line with the OCA’s commitments as a member of the Olympic movement.
Human Rights Watch is an independent, nongovernmental organization that monitors human rights developments in more than 90 countries worldwide. We have been monitoring human rights in Central Asia, and in Turkmenistan in particular, for more than 20 years.
The AIMAG will mark the first time Turkmenistan has hosted an event of this kind, and is a rare occasion when the country opens itself up to for an international event on this scale.
Turkmenistan is a closed country, ruled by a repressive government. The threat of government repression in retribution for any criticism of government policies and practices is so immediate and credible that independent human rights activists and journalists cannot work openly, making independent monitoring extraordinarily difficult and dangerous. Turkmenistan also remains cut off from independent human rights scrutiny, with UN special experts and NGOs alike denied access to the country.
Some of the most egregious abuses are described below, followed by recommendations we hope you will pursue with the Turkmen government in the nine remaining months before the Games.
Press Freedoms and Freedom of Expression
The Turkmen government’s treatment of media freedoms is an affront to the Olympic Charter’s embrace of press freedom in every conceivable way. Freedom of expression and association are subject to draconian restrictions, which the authorities enforce by threatening, harassing, or imprisoning those who dare to question its policies, however modestly. There are no truly independent publications in Turkmenistan, and the government has severely punished journalists and other individuals for providing reporting to foreign news organizations.
The government regularly targets correspondents for the Turkmen language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the only foreign news outlet that has a Turkmen-language service. In recent years, the Turkmen government harassed, jailed, and subjected to forced psychiatric treatment a number of RFE/RL’s reporters.
In the past two years the government has arrested and harassed RFE/RL contributors working on such social and economic issues as food shortages, wage delays, access to water, and the state of health care. Among them are:
- Khudayberdy Allashov, arrested in December on charges of possession of chewing tobacco.
- Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, arrested in July 2015 and sentenced one month later to three years in prison in closed proceedings on fabricated charges of narcotics possession. For much of the time he has been held in incommunicado detention. Mr. Nepeskuliev’s case has been reviewed by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which in December 2015 recognized Nepeskuliev as a victim of arbitrary detention for having peacefully exercised his right to freedom of expression.
- Soltan Achilova, detained in October 2016 just after she had taken photographs of a supermarket queue. After police released her, she was assaulted and robbed by unknown assailants who seemed to be acting at the authorities’ behest.
Internet access in Turkmenistan remains limited and heavily state-controlled. Many websites—including social media and messenger services—are blocked; internet cafés require visitors to register their personal data, and the government monitors all means of communication.
Starting in 2007, the Turkmen government has carried out several campaigns to force people to abandon satellite television and subscribe to government-controlled cable television packages, thereby cutting them off entirely from alternative sources of information. In the latest round, in May 2015, authorities threatened residents with fines of 400-500 Turkmen manat (US $116-$145) if they did not “voluntarily” remove their satellite dishes within a month and followed up by forcibly destroying the satellite dishes.
As you may know, in October 2016 Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov instructed a group of information technology experts to prevent “unreliable information” about the Games from being disseminated online. In light of the above, we believe there are grounds for concern that the government will spare no effort to bar from publication any information about human rights problems, including those directly related to preparations for the Games, and a wide range of other issues.
We also believe there are grounds for concern that the government will spare no effort to intimidate and harass journalists, from Turkmenistan and also foreign reporters, who seek to cover these issues. Hundreds of reporters will visit Ashgabat for the Games. As noted above, press freedom is expressly guaranteed under the Olympic Charter, and it is one of the central requirements of hosting Games that journalists can report without interference on the Games and a wide range of issues regarding the context in which they take place.
Political Prisoners, Enforced Disappearances
The Turkmen authorities’ practice is to use imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation not only with regard to journalists. It is impossible to determine the actual number of those held on political grounds because the justice system lacks transparency and there is no independent monitoring of these cases.
Dozens of other individuals, most of whom were arrested in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and many of them on politically motivated charges, have simply disappeared in the Turkmen prison system. For more than 13 years now, the government has refused to allow them any contact with their families, who have no information whatsoever about their loved ones, even whether they are dead or alive.
An October 2014 decision by the UN Human Rights Committee recognized former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov as a victim of enforced disappearance. Shikhmuradov was arrested, tried in a closed hearing, and handed a life sentence within a five-day period in 2002 for allegedly leading a coup attempt. His family has had no contact with him or information about him since his arrest and trial.
To put the egregious nature of this practice in context, enforced disappearances–the detention of a person followed by denial of the detention or refusal to provide information about the whereabouts or fate of the detained person–constitute a serious crime under international law and in certain circumstances may constitute a crime against humanity, prosecutable under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Freedom of Movement
The Turkmenistan government restricts the right of its citizens to travel freely outside the country by means of an informal and arbitrary system of travel bans commonly imposed on civil society activists and relatives of exiled dissidents. Turkmen officials in some cases also ban students from traveling abroad to continue their studies. At times the authorities have turned the family members away at the airport or physically removed them from flights.
Unlawful Evictions and Expropriations
It is important that the OCA closely examine whether Turkmen authorities carried out house clearances to make way for the construction of venues and related infrastructure for the AIMAG, and if so whether demolitions were carried out with due respect for the rights of homeowners to due process and fair and adequate compensation. This is important because Turkmen authorities have a long record of unlawful expropriation and demolitions.
For example, in 2011, Human Rights Watch documented unlawful expropriations and demolitions of private properties in Ashgabat and the surrounding Akhal region that clearly violated the government’s obligation to protect the right to private property and the right to adequate housing. Dozens of neighborhoods in central Ashgabat consisting of private homes were demolished in the absence of court decisions and without provision of comparable accommodation or fair financial compensation. Procedures for notifying residents of expropriation and informing them about their rights and means of appeal were insufficient. Demolitions are scheduled to continue through 2020 in other areas of Ashgabat.
The Role of the OCA
The OCA’s Constitution and Rules state the OCA’s commitment to apply and uphold “Olympic principles as defined in the Olympic Charter” and sets as among its goals to promote and develop “the Olympic Movement and its noble ideals among Asian people.” The International Olympic Committee’s charter enshrines press freedoms and human dignity as values the Olympic movement should uphold across all sporting federations.
The Turkmen government’s extreme and sustained repression of press freedoms and free speech and its persistent degradation of human dignity blatantly contravenes the letter and spirit of the Olympic Charter, by which the OCA is governed. Yet the Turkmen government will almost certainly use the AIMAG to whitewash its abysmal human rights record.
There is still time before the AIMAG for the Turkmen to take several steps to ease the repression. We therefore hope you will call on the Turkmen government to immediately:
- Unconditionally free Saparmamed Nepeskuliev and Khudayberdy Allashov;
- Ensure that Soltan Achilova and other independent contributors to media can work without undue interference and retribution; halt any ongoing, and refrain from initiating further, politically motivated arrests, prosecutions, harassment and other actions against independent journalists, activists, and civil society groups, and allow them to carry out their legitimate work without interference.
- Ensure that journalists, foreign and Turkmen alike, can report without fear of retribution on a wide range of issues related to the Games and the context in which they take place.
- Ensure that homeowners and residents forcibly evicted for construction of Games-related venues and infrastructure are fairly and adequately compensated for their property;
- Allow people in Turkmenistan to restore their private satellite dishes so as to enhance their access to information;
- Provide families of prisoners who have been barred from all contact with their loved ones information about their family member’s fate and whereabouts in custody and allow for visits, letters, packages, and the like.
There is still time for the OCA to prevent the AIMAG brand from being tarnished by serious human rights abuses. We hope you use your prominent role within the Association of National Olympic Committees and the Olympic Council of Asia to address abovementioned concerns directly, in the short time remaining before the start of the Games.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this letter and for using your leadership role as a force for good in the Olympic movement.
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch
CC: International Olympic Committee