Turkmenistan Tops Rankings as World’s Most Repressive State
Turkmenistan has overtaken North Korea as the world’s most repressive state according to Journalists without Borders’ most recent rankings.
The record of the country’s president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, indicates that he tolerates no criticism nor opposition and will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the free-flow of information into or out of the country.
What is branded a “closed and repressive” regime has finally released journalist Seyran Mamedov from prison after serving a punishing 15-year sentence. Although detained on dubious conspiracy charges, the reality is that Mamedov, like many other journalists, was imprisoned purely on political grounds.
Meanwhile, Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, an outspoken critic of the regime, has had five years added to his sentence; he was first jailed in 1995 for organising a political protest in the capital. His case is attested to by the Prove They Are Alive! campaign, a pressure group that seeks to throw light on the fate of individuals who have been officially “disappeared” in Turkmenistan.
These cases, it is argued, form part of a long and depressing history of repression, authoritarianism, and disregard for human rights that has come to characterise the Berdimuhamedov regime.
Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev, a journalist, was sentenced to five years for reporting on an arms depot explosion which killed 1,000 people; Ogulsapar Muradova, a correspondent, died in prison five years ago while serving a sentence for “conspiracy.” In 2016, approximately 100 men were accused of having links to the Turkish Gülen movement and sentenced in closed trials for up to 25 years while Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a freelance contributor to the independent Alternative News of Turkmenistan, was given a three-year sentence for bogus charges in 2015.
Amnesty International describes “an atmosphere of total repression, denial of basic human rights, and the all-permeating fear” in Turkmen society. Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia Programme, Director John Dalhuisen, describes a dire human rights situation, in which there is “no genuine opposition party” and “not a single independent human rights organisation operating freely inside the country.” He highlights the “systematic harassment of any kind of opposition of dissent” and calls upon the international community, including the European Union, to show greater awareness of the extent of civil rights violations in Turkmenistan.
Brussels-based human rights campaigner John Turnbull said, “The use of torture by the regime is routine. It is used as a means of procuring forced confessions, securing dodgy convictions and intimidating political opponents. Methods used include pushing needles under fingernails, electric shocks, asphyxiation, systematic sexual violence, forcible administration of psychotropic drugs, beatings, deprivation of food and water, and exposure to extreme cold. Prisoners serving life sentences are reportedly kept in shackles and detained in cells build with a maximum height of 1.5 metres so prisoners cannot stand up straight, and all contact with relatives or the outside world is prohibited. None of these appalling practices have been subject to an effective independent investigation.”
Aside from political repression and the persecution of journalists and political dissenters, the Turkmen regime is said to make infamous use of forced labour in its vast cotton fields. According to Anti-Slavery International, the charity seeking to end modern forms of slavery: “Turkmen citizens are sometimes forced to leave their homes and spend weeks in the cotton fields. Workers assigned to remote areas have to stay overnight, often crowded into temporary accommodation, and with no option but to live in unsanitary conditions.”
In addition to the fundamental breaches of human rights and dignity implied by its forced labour policies, the Turkmen government displays remarkable inefficiency. Qualified professionals such as teachers work performing backbreaking manual labour, often leaving their schools back home unstaffed. Workers are forcibly transported to remote regions far from where they live in order to plug labour shortages. Turkmenistan is continuing to operate in the style of a command economy from a bygone age with little to no regard for economic reality, let alone for the rights and welfare of its citizens, according to rights groups.
Turkmenistan is languishing economically not only because of its stultifying political atmosphere but also due to its appalling treatment of foreign investors. Oguzhan Cakirolgu, a board member of a former Turkish investor in Turkmenistan, claims: “The government has run out of financial resources, and it hasn’t been paying for finished contracts, let alone being able to pay for new ones. It has not been paying companies for more than three years.”
Polimeks, a contractor, has stopped work on a highway connecting Turkmenbashi and Ashgabat, the capital, due to non-payment of debts, Japanese Itochu Corporation lost its supply of propylene despite its major role in supplying the government with the necessary commodities for oil and gas refineries, and MTS, a telecoms company, arbitrarily had their license to use the national telecoms network revoked. Numerous cases against Turkmenistan are pending before the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes.
The president himself has become something of a figure of ridicule. Earlier this year, it was reported that locals had been using newspapers containing photographs of Berdimuhamedov to wipe themselves. The 63-year-old, the only son in a family of eight children, was also described in leaked US embassy cables as “not a very bright guy.”
In spite of calls by the UN and EU to take positive steps towards social, humanitarian and economic reform, Turkmenistan remains in a state of fossilization. It treats its citizens like subjects of a mid-20th-century dictatorship. As Western voices call for greater engagement with the Caucasus, the flagrant human rights abuses of this unreformed state should not be overlooked.