(Berlin) – Turkmenistan will host the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) starting September 17, 2017, amid an appalling record of human rights abuse, Human Rights Watch and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) said today.
The leadership of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) have made no visible efforts to urge the Turkmen government to address a single human rights concern. The games, in Ashgabat through September 27, will draw athletes from dozens of nations of Asia and Oceania for 21 sporting events.
“The OCA’s silence about abuse in Turkmenistan is deafening, said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch “The OCA has utterly failed the Olympic charter’s ideals that it is supposed to uphold.”
The OCA, the owner and organizer of the games, is one of the five continental associations recognized by the International Olympic Committee. It is committed to upholding “Olympic Principles as defined in the Olympic Charter,” which in turn enshrines press freedom and human dignity as values the Olympic movement should uphold across all sporting federations.
Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries in the world. The government has a long record of tightly controlling virtually all aspects of public life and severely punishing even the mildest criticism of government policies. Steps taken by Turkmen authorities during preparations for the games indicate that while hosting the games may bring prestige for the government, they have led only to further human rights violations and restrictions for the country’s citizens.
The government further restricted residents’ travel abroad and within the country, severely harassed and threatened one of country’s few independent reporters, and informed visitors – presumably including foreign journalists – that they must hire “minders” to move around outside the area of the games’ venues and related hotels and restaurants. The authorities have also closed schools in Ashgabat for the duration of the games.
The Turkmen government goes to great lengths to isolate its citizens from foreigners. In recent weeks, authorities have also reportedly cordoned off areas around the zone where the games will take place, presumably for security reasons, but the move will further separate visiting foreigners.
“The AIMAG is a medium-scale athletic competition, and shouldn’t be a state of emergency,” said Farid Tuhbatullin, director of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. “The Turkmen government has no business imposing such draconian restrictions on its people, not for these games, not ever.”
The government allows no media freedom. For years, the authorities have imprisoned, threatened, harassed, or driven into exile journalists who engage in independent reporting, or who provide information about Turkmenistan to foreign news outlets.
Media freedom is a key pillar of the Olympic charter. In several letters, Human Rights Watch and TIHR asked the OCA what it would do to ensure press freedom during the games. The OCA did not respond. Nor did the OCA respond to a letter from both organizations urging it to raise concerns with the Turkmen government about death threats that an independent journalist had been receiving.
“It’s not a surprise that Turkmen authorities are sparing no effort to ensure that foreign journalists covering the Ashgabat games do not see or speak to ordinary people in Turkmenistan,” Tukhbatullin said. “The last thing the government wants is for foreigners to see for themselves just how dire the human rights situation is.”
The Turkmen government systematically denies freedoms of association, expression, and religion. The country is closed to all independent scrutiny, and 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, in Turkmen prisons. Homosexual conduct is a criminal offense, and gay men are subjected to harassment and intimidation.
The authorities demolished thousands of homes in the years leading up to the games for urban reconstruction and renewal to remake the city’s appearance. TIHR and Human Rights Watch documented that the authorities cheated many homeowners out of fair compensation for their homes. Neither the Turkmen government nor the OCA responded to letters from TIHR and Human Rights Watch expressing concern about the unfair compensation.
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 is estimated to be approximately US$2.3 billion. One reliable source from Turkmenistan has put the estimate millions higher. Turkmenistan is in the midst of a severe economic crisis.
The Turkmen government has repeatedly touted the games as an opportunity to “show itself to the whole world.”
“The only thing the Turkmen government is showing the world is its perverse, terrible treatment of its people,” Denber said. “No amount of games and fanfare can cover that up. It is appalling that the OCA is allowing Olympic values to be so thoroughly degraded.”