September 1, 2017
Mr. Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah
Olympic Council of Asia and,
Association of National Olympic Committees
P.O. Box 6706, 3042, Hawalli, Kuwait
Mr. Thomas Bach
International Olympic Committee
Château de Vidy 1007, Lausanne,
Dear Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, dear Mr. Bach,
We are writing as a matter of urgency to ask the OCA to call immediately on the government of Turkmenistan to cancel instructions, recently announced by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, that would impose arbitrary and unjustified limitations on freedom of movement for residents in Turkmenistan in the lead-up and during the 5th Asian and Indoor Martial Arts Games (AIMAG), which start in Asghabat on September 17.
The International Olympic Committee has embraced human rights and accountability as part of the Olympic Agenda 2020, and all regional bodies, including the Olympic Council of Asia, should be prepared to uphold the same principles. The situation in Turkmenistan is an affront to these new commitments.
On August 15, President Berdymukhamedov ordered a heightened ‘state of alert’ from August 17 through September 27, ostensibly to guarantee security for the 5th AIMAG. He issued the order at a National Security Council meeting on August 15.
The terms of the state of alert are apparently set out in a presidential order, which has not been made public. The official state news report on the order states that, starting August 17, “the borders may be closed, visa regimes may be limited, and customs control will be strengthened.”
Importantly, the official news report states that “permission to enter and leave the country will be given to individuals for issues that are of a private and social nature, and also to participate in international events that have previously been scheduled.” The state news report also states that “in exceptional circumstances such issues will be resolved by a special commission.” In light of Turkmenistan's practices and record on freedom of movement this strongly implies the intent is for authorities, at will, to prevent people from traveling.
It is standard practice for the Turkmen government, when announcing measures that impose severe restrictions on rights, to present them, however fraudulently, as designed to protect rights. The above order is no exception to this kind of distortion and gross misrepresentation. The government is packaging potentially very extensive travel restrictions as measures, as stated in the government news report, “protecting the constitutionally guaranteed right to travel”.
The Turkmen government has a responsibility to ensure security in relation to events such as the AIMAG, and therefore some restrictions into Ashgabat and around the sporting venues, may be justified on the basis of safety and security. But international law requires those restrictions have a legal basis, be proportionate and strictly necessary.
Specifically, Turkmenistan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of movement. The Covenant requires restrictions on freedom of movement be “necessary to protect national security, public order (ordre public), public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others”. They must also be consistent with the other rights recognized in the Covenant.
Because the presidential order has not been made public, the specifics of how the restrictions are to be implemented are unclear, such as: beyond the existence of the order, what will be the legal basis for any travel restrictions? Whose travel will be restricted and on what basis or evidence? Will people be able to seek redress if victims of such restrictions, and if so how? What would constitute “exceptional circumstances,” and how will people access the special commission tasked with determining whether they exist?
Unfortunately, the information that is available so far strongly indicates the Turkmen government has chosen to achieve security objectives in a way that is neither proportionate nor necessary. This would be wholly consistent with its extremely poor record on freedom of movement. You may recall that in our December 9 letter to you, attached for your convenience, we noted that “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.”
We have decided to write to the OCA and the IOC in tandem because the Turkmen government’s contempt for Olympic values on press freedoms and human dignity has been extreme, because the government has taken no measures to address abuses that we have described to you in previous letters, and because the recently announced travel restrictions suggest that as the games draw nearer the government’s repression will only grow more fierce. The Turkmen government’s move against freedom of movement is only the latest in its persistent failure to respect universal human rights standards, and it is being done in the name of the AIMAG. This contravenes the letter and spirit of the Olympic Charter, by which the OCA is governed.
We are counting on you to urge the Turkmen government to immediately rescind this order.
Please do not hesitate to contact us should there be any questions.
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch
Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights