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The main stadium in Ashgabat where the fifth Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games will be held. © 2016 Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights

(Berlin) – Turkmenistan’s atrocious human rights record risks completely overshadowing its hosting of the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games unless the leadership of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) urge the Turkmen government to address human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) said today.

Turkmenistan’s human rights record is inconsistent with the OCA’s commitments as a member of the Olympic movement. The 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) will take place in Ashgabat from September 17-27, 2017. An estimated 8,000 athletes from dozens of nations, including for the first time, Oceania, are expected to participate in a total of 21 sporting events. The cost of the Olympic village, where the games will be held, has been estimated at US$5 billion, and the cost of a new international airport built in time for the games has cost about US$2.3 billion. Turkmenistan is in the midst of a severe economic crisis.

“The Turkmen government thoroughly represses its people,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights. “Its human rights record is an affront to Olympic principles, which the OCA is supposed to uphold.”

The OCA is the owner and organizer of the Games. It is one of the five continental associations recognized by the International Olympic Committee, and among its objectives is to “be responsible for promotion and development of the Olympic Movement and its noble ideals among Asian people.”

The Turkmen government tightly controls all aspects of public life and systematically denies freedoms of association, expression, and religion. The country is utterly closed to all independent scrutiny, and the government allows no media freedoms. The few independent activists who try to promote human rights under the radar face a constant threat of government reprisal. Authorities often impose arbitrary travel bans on activists and relatives of exiled dissidents and others, and deny entry to foreign journalists, human rights defenders, and rights monitors.

Dozens of people remain forcibly disappeared, presumably in Turkmen prisons. The authorities expropriate and demolish residents’ homes without due process.

Homosexual conduct is a criminal offense, and gay men are subjected to harassment and intimidation.

In December 2016 and February 2017 letters to the OCA, Human Rights Watch urged the organization’s leadership to seek human rights improvements in Turkmenistan in the lead-up to the Games, in line with the OCA’s commitments as a member of the Olympic movement. Human Rights Watch received no response. Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries in the world. The Games mark an extremely rare occasion when the country will open itself up for an international event on this scale.

The Games will bring the international media spotlight to Turkmenistan, where for years the government has imprisoned, threatened, harassed, or driven into exile journalists who engage in independent reporting, or who provide information about Turkmenistan to foreign news outlets, TIHR and Human Rights Watch said.

For example, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a freelance contributor to the Turkmen language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been in prison since July 2015 on bogus drug charges, after he took photographs of an amusement park on the Caspian Sea coast. Soltan Achilova, another Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributor, was attacked in November 2016 as she took photographs of a line in front of a supermarket. Gaspar Matalaev, an activist who provided photographs documenting child labor in the cotton harvest, is serving a three-year prison sentence on bogus fraud charges. Internet access in Turkmenistan remains limited and heavily state-controlled, and authorities routinely block all or parts of websites of certain international news agencies.

The Olympic Charter enshrines press freedom and human dignity as values the Olympic movement should uphold across all sporting federations.

The Turkmen government’s complete suppression of media freedom contravenes the letter and spirit of the Olympic Charter and could have a negative impact on the work of journalists covering the Games, the TIHR and Human Rights Watch said.

Although the AIMAG is not an Olympic event, 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 Turkmen government has repeatedly touted the Games as an opportunity to “show itself to the whole world.”

“The Turkmen government sees the Games as a way of enhancing its international reputation,” said Farid Tukhbatullin, director of the Vienna-based nongovernmental organization TIHR. “The OCA should be clear that the prestige of holding the Games comes with expectations of abiding by Olympic principles.”

In its letters to the OCA, Human Rights asked the OCA’s president to urge Turkmen authorities to take several steps to ease the long-standing repression that would ensure the OCA is true to Olympic principles. These include:

  • Unconditionally and immediately free Saparmamed Nepeskuliev;
  • 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 to enhance their access to information; and
  • 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.

“The OCA still has time to insist that the Turkmen government make some improvements,” Denber said. “Failing to do so would mean squandering this unique opportunity and further emboldening the Turkmen government to commit abuses.”

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