The regime in Turkmenistan remained deeply authoritarian. Serious human rights violations were routine. The right to health was violated in the context of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. The authorities continued to deny that there were any cases of COVID-19 despite evidence to the contrary. The right to freedom of expression was severely restricted. Consensual sex between men remained a criminal offence. Conscientious objectors to military service risked being imprisoned. The fate and whereabouts of at least 120 prisoners subjected to enforced disappearance remained unknown.
Turkmenistan remained effectively closed to human rights and other international monitors. The media operated under firm state control, leading to self-censorship and an inability to report events regarded by the authorities as negative, including the spread of COVID-19. The standard of living continued to fall and shortages of food as well as cash persisted, with often exceptionally long queues at the limited number of bank machines. The extent of the economic problems was masked by an official exchange rate which overvalued the local currency.
The authorities continued to deny the occurrence of any COVID-19 cases. They delayed the introduction of WHO-recommended measures such as physical distancing and masks until July, while holding mass events requiring mandatory participation to mark the traditional Novruz spring holiday in March and World Bicycle Day in June. In April, Radio Free Europe reported that those wearing a mask would be fined. The advice changed in July after the Ministry of Health recommended mask wearing owing to “increased levels of dust in the air”.
A WHO mission, following a visit in July, noted the recent measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission and called for the country to further activate critical public health measures such as test and trace. The delegation noted that the hospitals they visited were well equipped without high bed occupancy rates or a significant number of patients with respiratory diseases. According to Radio Free Europe, however, the hospitals had stopped receiving patients days before the arrival of the WHO mission, and those with respiratory diseases had been moved to other wards not visited by the delegation. Despite continuing official denial of deaths from COVID-19, the NGO Analytical Centre for Central Asia analysed Google Maps to track the digging of graves in the town of Balkanabad. They estimated that between 25 March and 16 April alone, 317 new graves were dug, as opposed to 524 for the entire period from 31 May 2018 to 25 March 2020.
The authorities continued to stifle peaceful expression of dissent or criticism. One of the most sustained protests followed repeated hurricanes and heavy rains in the eastern part of the country in April and May, which destroyed houses and caused dozens of fatalities. Residents left for weeks in flooded houses with no electricity blamed the inaction of the authorities and there were protests by people at home and abroad. The authorities attempted to stop the protests abroad by putting pressure on the demonstrators and their relatives in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistani students in Turkey reported being visited by Turkmenistani secret police who threatened to have them forcibly returned if they had taken part in demonstrations. A friend of the organizer of the protest action in Istanbul, who was living in Turkmenistan, was reportedly repeatedly summoned to the local branch of the Ministry of National Security where he was beaten and asked to tell the organizer not to participate in the protest movement. Several dozen people were also detained in Turkmenistan on accusations of sharing photos and video clips of the hurricane damage with relatives and other contacts abroad. One, Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, was sentenced in September to six years’ imprisonment on fabricated charges of hooliganism and bodily harm for his links to activists abroad.
Consensual sexual relations between men remained a criminal offence punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. In May, a well-known entertainer was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for consensual same-sex sexual relations. An unknown number of other men from the entertainment industry were also reportedly sentenced.
Widespread societal homophobia and transphobia left LGBTI people, or those perceived to be, highly vulnerable to torture and other ill-treatment, sexual abuse, and extortion at the hands of the police and others. They also came under severe pressure from their families who sought “to protect the family honour” including by imposing forced marriages.
Conscientious objectors faced criminal prosecution. Two Jehovah’s Witnesses, brothers Eldor and Sanjarbek Saburov, were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in August after a previous administrative sentence for refusing to perform military service. Myrat Orazgeldiyev was also given a two-year prison sentence in September. The NGO Forum 18 reported that four other Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned as conscientious objectors during the year, and that six others sentenced in 2018 and 2019 continued to serve jail terms at the end of the year.
The fate and whereabouts of at least 120 prisoners subjected to enforced disappearance remained unknown. Some were imprisoned after an alleged assassination attempt on then President Saparmurat Niyazov in November 2002. One, Yazgeldy Gundogdyev, died in detention in December; he had been serving his sentence incommunicado.