Turkmenistan made no improvements to its dire human rights record in 2023. The country remains closed to international scrutiny. Authorities continue to suppress fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedoms of religion, movement, expression, and association. Recent political reforms have only deepened authoritarian rule. The government does not acknowledge poverty and has failed to take measures to address continued food insecurity.
In December 2022, authorities released several activists imprisoned on politically motivated bogus charges. But many others wrongfully imprisoned remain behind bars, and the fate of dozens of victims of enforced disappearances are still unknown. Torture and ill-treatment persist.
Turkmenistan continues to criminalize adult consensual same-sex conduct, and women and girls face restrictions on their rights.
Parliament and Elections
In January, constitutional reform reverted Turkmenistan’s parliament to a unicameral institution and reintroduced the People’s Council as the highest body. The council includes representatives of all branches of government, oversees all policy, and is headed by ex-president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
In March, Turkmenistan held elections for parliament and for local and provincial assemblies. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) did not “carry out systematic or comprehensive observation of the voting.” Radio Azatlyk reported voting rights violations at polling stations.
There is virtually no independent civil society in Turkmenistan. Unregistered activities are outlawed, and registration requirements are burdensome. There are no independent human rights organizations, and international monitors cannot freely operate. The government continues to punish all forms of dissent and public criticism.
Activists living abroad and their relatives in Turkmenistan face constant threats of government reprisals. Turkmen rights groups in exile reported that several activists living in exile were deported back to Turkmenistan in 2023 and promptly detained upon their return.
The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), a Vienna-based group, reported that in August, security officials detained Dovran Imamov, who had been deported from Türkiye, at Ashgabat airport. Imamov, who openly criticized the Turkmen government on social media and participated in anti-government protests in Türkiye, was reportedly being held in pre-trial detention on bogus fraud charges as of September 2023.
In February, Rinat Zainulin, brother of an exiled YouTube and TikTok activist, suffered serious burns after a fire at his house, reported Turkmen.news, a Netherlands-based outlet. The fire occurred on the same day that security officials visited his grandmother and asked for her grandson’s address. In September 2022, police arbitrarily held Zainulin for 20 days and forced him to tell his brother by phone that his activities make his “relatives suffer.” Zainulin’s employer fired him for absenteeism while he was detained.
In December 2022, security services in Turkmenistan questioned the 12-year-old son of Dursoltan Taganova, an activist in Türkiye, at his school and offered him “friendship.” Afterward, the deputy principal threatened to hand the boy to police if he remained “stubborn.” Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen-language service of the United States government-funded Radio Liberty, reported that in October 2022, police in Mary province threatened the parents of Merdan Ilyasov, based in Türkiye, with imprisonment in retaliation for his online criticism of the government.
On November 22, Turkish authorities deported Tajigul Begmedova, the head of the THF, from Türkiye, citing a five-year entry ban issued on September 12 on alleged “national security” grounds.
Freedom of Media and Information
There is no media freedom in Turkmenistan. Access to the internet remains severely limited. In April, Turkmen.news reported that three-quarters of global IP addresses in Turkmenistan were blocked and also exposed security services selling access to IP addresses with unfettered internet access.
The authorities block instant messenger apps when they become popular, and in 2023, they blocked ICQ and partially blocked IMO.
Turkmen authorities have ramped up persecution of users and providers of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and blocked VPN sites. In November 2022, Radio Azatlyk reported that Turkmenbashi authorities raided the homes and workplaces of suspected VPN users and providers, imposing warnings and arresting some for up to 15 days. In January, security officials in Balkan province raided the homes of VPN installers, detaining and fining 10 individuals. Authorities arrested VPN installers in Ashgabat in October, detaining some for up to 15 days; at least one was fined 15,000 Turkmen manat (about US$4,285). Although Turkmen law does not explicitly outlaw VPNs, it bans “uncertified” encryption programs and punishes “deliberately providing illegal services that provide technical programs” online with a maximum of seven years in prison.
In June, Radio Azatlyk reported that police interrogated and warned local bloggers to post only positive content about Turkmenistan or face arrest.
Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
Independent reporting indicates that the availability of subsidized food staples continued to shrink while prices continued to rise, with the government failing to adequately address increasing poverty.
Radio Azatlyk reported shortages of subsidized bread and flour, forcing Turkmen citizens to withstand long queues to purchase rations that were often low quality or expired. The prolonged lack of subsidized staples led to sporadic protests, in some cases turning violent, in Dashoguz province in May and April and in Turkmenbashi in August and June.
Systemic forced labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton fields remains widespread. Authorities forcibly mobilize government employees to harvest cotton, threatening to dismiss those who refuse.
Freedom of Movement
Turkmenistan’s government continues to interfere with and arbitrarily deny its citizens’ right to freedom of movement. Officials regularly bar people from boarding international flights without explanation. They continue to deny passport renewals, through consular services, to Turkmen citizens living abroad.
Turkmen authorities imposed various administrative barriers to renewing and obtaining passports and procuring foreign visas. They temporarily suspended passport services in February 2023 under various pretexts; required travelers to Kazakhstan to submit notarized letters by relatives guaranteeing their return; and required others to sign statements to refrain from activism abroad.
Authorities imposed an arbitrary five-year travel ban on Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, a lawyer sentenced to six years’ imprisonment in 2020 on bogus charges but released in December 2022 under a presidential amnesty.
On November 18, after a lengthy and humiliating security check, Ashgabat airport’s border officials prevented Soltan Achilova, an independent journalist and her daughter from traveling to Geneva to attend human rights events, falsely claiming that their passports were damaged.
Political Prisoners, Enforced Disappearances, and Torture
In December 2922, authorities released, under presidential pardon, Khursanai Ismatullayeva and Seryozha Babaniyazov, both sentenced on bogus, politically motivated charges in 2021. But many others remain imprisoned on such charges. At time of writing, they included Nurgeldy Khalykov, Mansur Mingelov, Murat Ovezov, and Murad Dushemov. In March, the government communicated to the United Nations Human Rights Committee that “the pardon of Nurgeldy Khalykov, Murat Dushemov and Mansur Mingelov is being considered.”
Political dissident Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, whose 11-year sentence on politically motivated charges ended in 2019, continues to serve a five-year term of forced internal exile.
For more than two decades, dozens of individuals have remained victims of enforced disappearances. Authorities deny them access to families, lawyers, and the outside world. The Prove They Are Alive! campaign, an international coalition that has worked on ending enforced disappearances in Turkmenistan since 2013, has documented at least 162 disappearances in Turkmen prisons, 97 of which are unresolved, including 33 individuals whose prison terms expired at the end of 2022 but whose fates and whereabouts remain unknown.
Freedom of Religion
The Turkmen authorities tightly monitor registered religious groups and forbid unregistered congregations and groups. Individuals who allegedly engage in religious activities beyond state-approved religions are severely punished and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.
In August, according to the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation (THF), Turkmen authorities arrested Ashirbai Bekiev at Ashgabat airport after Russia deported him. Turkmenistan had initially requested his extradition in 2015 on dubious charges of inciting national and religious hatred. In October, a court in Dashoguz sentenced Bekiev to 23 years in prison on spurious “religious extremism” charges.
Azatlyk reported in August that police in Balkan province had raided homes of devout Muslims and confiscated religious literature. In March, police in Balkan province interrogated women and girls who wear hijab.
Also in March, security officials repeatedly summoned and interrogated a man in Mary city for providing Islamic prayer services, according to Forum 18, an independent religious freedom group. Forum 18 further reported that in August, security services detained an imam in Balkan province for teaching Islam to children without state approval.
In October and November 2022, police in Ashgabat detained and threatened bearded young men whom they suspected to be adherents of radical Islam, saying police would bring criminal charges if they did not shave off their beards.
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
In 2022, a law that banned abortion after five weeks of pregnancy and was reportedly adopted in 2015 was made public. According to Saglyk.org, an online initiative that provides fact-based public health information in Turkmen, abortions are heavily stigmatized and there is no comprehensive sexuality education. In 2021, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that almost 60 percent of women and girls are denied bodily autonomy, including decision making on health care and contraception. Several sources have reported efforts by authorities to create obstacles to travel abroad by single women under age 40.
Key International Actors
European Union Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore and EU Special Representative for Central Asia Ambassador Terhi Hakala visited Turkmenistan in April. They met with officials and reportedly discussed women’s rights, the importance of independent civil society, and the government’s lack of cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms. During its annual human rights dialogue with Turkmenistan in November 2022, the EU raised a range of issues, including restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, association, and expression; torture and enforced disappearances; and several individual cases. The EU has not yet ratified a bilateral partnership and cooperation agreement with Turkmenistan due to its poor human rights record.
In September, United States President Joe Biden met President Berdymukhamedov during the inaugural summit between the leaders of all five Central Asian governments on the sidelines of the opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York.
During her July visit to Turkmenistan, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro raised concerns about journalists’ safety and “restrictions on the free flow of information,” including online, and urged Turkmenistan to comply with OSCE media freedom commitments.
The UN Human Rights Committee in April and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in August highlighted human rights concerns in Turkmenistan, including restrictions on media and civil society and violations of the freedoms of association, religion, and movement. The Human Rights Committee also flagged concerns about enforced disappearances, specifically called for release of Khalykov, Dushemov, and Mingelov, and questioned Turkmenistan’s request that Türkiye impose visa requirements on Turkmen nationals.
During Turkmenistan’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in November, a number of delegations urged Turkmenistan to address the issues of enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests and detentions; ensure independent civil society and access to information; and criminalize all forms of gender-based violence.