Turkmenistan is a secular democracy constitutionally, although President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is an authoritarian figure who effectively controls the country along with a small inner circle. Berdimuhamedov became president in 2006 and remained president following the 2017 presidential election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) determined that the election involved limited choice between competing political alternatives and found “serious irregularities.” On March 31, interim parliamentary elections took place in the capital Ashgabat and Mary Province to elect two members of the Mejlis (parliament).
The national police and the Ministry of National Security maintain internal security. The military and border security forces are responsible for external security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of torture by police and prison officials; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; severe restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including threats of violence and threats of unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists; censorship and site blocking; interference with the freedoms of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; substantial restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; widespread corruption; trafficking in persons; and the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual activity between men.
Officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government were known to act with impunity, although numerous officials were arrested and imprisoned on charges of corruption. There were no reported prosecutions of government officials for human rights abuses.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government did not respect this right.
Freedom of Expression: The law characterizes any opposition to the government as treason. Citizens publicly criticizing the government or the regime face intimidation and possible arrest. The law requires political parties to allow representatives of the Central Election Committee and Ministry of Justice to monitor their meetings. The government warned critics against speaking with visiting journalists or other foreigners about human rights problems.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government financed and controlled the publication of books and almost all other print media and online newspapers and journals. The quasi-independent weekly newspaper Rysgal continued to operate, although its stories were largely reprints from state media outlets or reflected the views of the state news agency. The government maintained restrictions on the importation of foreign newspapers except for the private, but government-sanctioned, Turkish newspaper Zaman Turkmenistan, which reflected the views of the official state newspapers, and Atavatan-Turkmenistan, a Turkish journal.
The government controlled radio and domestic television, but satellite dishes providing access to foreign television programming were widespread throughout the country. Channels including BBC World News and the Turkmen language version of RFE/RL were widely available through satellite dishes. Citizens also received international radio programs through satellite access.
The government continued its ban on subscriptions to foreign periodicals by nongovernmental entities, although copies of nonpolitical periodicals appeared occasionally in the bazaars. The government maintained a subscription service to Russian-language outlets for government workers, although these publications were not available for public use.
There was no independent oversight of media accreditation, no defined criteria for allocating press cards, no assured provision for receiving accreditation when space was available, and no protection against the withdrawal of accreditation for political reasons. The government required all foreign correspondents to apply for accreditation. It granted visas to journalists from outside the country only to cover specific events, such as international conferences and summit meetings, where it could monitor their activities.
Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported July 29, and credible sources confirmed, that former RFE/RL journalist Soltan Achilova was still banned from traveling abroad. In July she received a letter from the State Migration Service dated July 16 and signed by the deputy chairman of the state migration service that confirmed her travel ban was official and not lifted. Her daughter was also banned from foreign travel. The government reported, as of September 1, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accredited 23 foreign journalists.
Violence and Harassment: The government subjected journalists critical of its official policy to surveillance and harassment. There were reports law enforcement officials harassed and monitored citizen journalists who worked for foreign media outlets, including by monitoring their telephone conversations and restricting their travel abroad.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits censorship and provides for freedom to gather and disseminate information, but authorities did not implement the law. The government continued to censor newspapers and prohibit reporting of opposition political views or any criticism of the president. Domestic journalists and foreign news correspondents often engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal.
To regulate domestic printing and copying activities, the government required all publishers, printers, and photocopying establishments to register their equipment. The government did not allow the publication of works on topics that were out of favor with the government, including some works of fiction. The government must approve the importation, publishing, and dissemination of religious literature. Importation of the Quran and the Bible is prohibited.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law do not provide for full freedom of movement.
In-country Movement: The law requires internal passports and residency permits. Persons residing or working without residency permits face forcible removal to their place of registration. A requirement for a border permit remained in effect for all foreigners wishing to travel to border areas.
Beginning in February police began a campaign of harassment of female drivers. On numerous occasions police confiscated women’s licenses and cars for ostensibly minor reasons, such as lacking an item in the legally required first-aid kit.
Foreign Travel: The government continued to bar certain citizens from departing under its Law on Migration. The law states that Turkmen citizens may be denied exit from the country “if their exit contravenes the interests of the national security of Turkmenistan.”
Prove They Are Alive! reported that any of the country’s law enforcement bodies can initiate a travel ban on a citizen and that travelers in various categories may be denied departure, including young men obliged to military service; persons facing criminal and civil charges or under probationary sentence; relatives of persons reportedly convicted and imprisoned for the 2002 alleged assassination/coup attempt; as well as journalists, civil society activists, and their family members. The group estimated that 20,000 individuals were subject to a travel ban based on political grounds.
Unless the program was specifically approved in advance by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government routinely prevented citizens from travelling abroad for programs sponsored by foreign governments. Migration officials often stopped nonapproved travelers at the airport and prevented them from leaving.
The law provides for restrictions on travel by citizens who had access to state secrets, presented falsified personal information, committed a serious crime, were under surveillance, might become victims of trafficking, previously violated the law of the destination country, or whose travel contradicts the interests of national security. In some cases, the law provides for time limits on the travel ban as well as fines for its infraction. Former public-sector employees who had access to state secrets were prevented from traveling abroad for five years after terminating their employment with the government. The law allows authorities to forbid recipients of presidential amnesties from traveling abroad for a period of up to two years.
Exile: The law provides for internal exile, requiring persons to reside in a certain area for a fixed term of two to five years.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: While formally there is a system for granting refugee status, it was inactive. In 2009 the government assumed responsibility from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for making refugee status determinations, but it has not granted refugee status since. UNHCR had observer status at government-run refugee-status determination hearings. No new asylum seekers have officially registered in the country since 2005. UNHCR reported that as of October 2017, 22 UNHCR mandate refugees resided in the country. Each of these had been individually recognized under UNHCR’s mandate between 1998 and 2002. Mandate refugees are required to renew UNHCR certificates with the government annually.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Despite a constitutional provision giving citizens the ability to choose their government in periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage, there have been no free and fair elections in the country. There was no bona fide political opposition to the president, and alternative candidates came from derivative party structures, such as the state-controlled Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, or were members of individual initiative groups. Elections were conducted by secret ballot. According to the OSCE, the election law does not meet OSCE standards.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
While the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Corruption existed in the security forces and in all social and economic sectors. Factors encouraging corruption included the existence of patronage networks, low government salaries that in the latter half of the year were paid as much as three months behind schedule, a lack of fiscal transparency and accountability, the absence of published macroeconomic data, and the fear of government retaliation against citizens who choose to highlight corrupt acts. According to Freedom House and the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, the country had a severe corruption problem.
There are no independent institutions tasked with combating corruption. Crackdowns on corruption are typically selective and related to conflicts within the ruling elite. Anticorruption bodies have also allegedly been used to extort revenue from wealthy officials and businessmen.
Checks on nepotism and conflicts of interest are also lacking; the president’s son, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, was re-elected as a deputy to the Mejlis in 2018 and was appointed governor of Ahal Province in June.
Corruption: On October 1, President Berdimuhamedov fired the minister of internal affairs Isgender Mulikov for corruption and bribery activities within his subordinate agencies, including the national police. The president stated he had previously reprimanded him 12 times for such activities.
Financial Disclosure: The law does not require elected or appointed officials to disclose their incomes or assets. Financial disclosure requirements are neither transparent nor consistent with international norms. Government enterprises are not required to publicize financial statements, even to foreign partners. Local auditors, not internationally recognized firms, often conducted financial audits.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
There were no domestic NGOs that work exclusively on human rights, although some NGOs worked on related social issues, due to the government’s refusal to register such organizations and restrictions that made activity by unregistered organizations illegal. The government continued to monitor the activities of nonpolitical social and cultural organizations.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: There were no international human rights NGOs with a permanent presence in the country, although the government permitted international organizations, such as the OSCE, to have a resident mission. The government permitted the OSCE to conduct workshops and study tours on prisoners’ rights, women’s rights, religious freedom, and media freedom. During the year the OSCE conducted trainings on terrorism prevention, media, security issues, energy, money laundering, and human trafficking. The government collaborated with the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR, which no longer had a resident mission, on migration and statelessness issues. Government restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, and association severely restricted international organizations’ ability to investigate, understand, and fully evaluate the government’s human rights policies and practices.
The government allowed unfettered access to the OSCE Center. There were no reports the government discouraged citizens from contacting other international organizations.
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances requested an invitation to visit the country in 2016. The working group again requested an invitation in January but still had not received a response by September.
Government Human Rights Bodies: In July 2018 the government-run National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights changed its name to the Institute of State, Law, and Democracy. It is not an independent body, and its ability to obtain redress for citizens was limited. The institute, established in 1996, has a mandate to support democratization. The Interagency Commission on Enforcing Turkmenistan’s International Obligations on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law meets biannually to coordinate the implementation of a limited number of recommendations from international human rights bodies. The parliamentary Committee on the Protection of Human Rights and Liberties oversees human rights-related legislation, and during the year it worked with the UN Development Program to draft the country’s National Action Plan for Human Rights.
In 2017 parliament confirmed Yazdursun Gurbannazarova’s nomination as the first human rights ombudsman, and she assumed her duties. By law the ombudsman must be nominated by the president and confirmed by parliament. The law empowers the ombudsman to receive and review human rights violations reported by citizens and confirm or deny the violation and advise the complainant regarding legal redress. The ombudsman is obliged to submit an annual human rights report to the president and parliament, which shall be published and distributed via local media. The ombudsman enjoys legal immunity and cannot be prosecuted, arrested, or detained for official acts while in office. In 2018 the Ombudsperson’s Office recorded a total of 985 appeals.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions and to bargain collectively with their employers. The law prohibits workers from striking. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination against union members and organizers. There are no mechanisms for resolving complaints of discrimination nor does the law provide for reinstatement of workers fired for antiunion activity.
The government did not respect freedom of association or collective bargaining and did not effectively enforce the law. No penalties exist to deter violations. All trade and professional unions were government controlled, and none had an independent voice in its activities. The government did not permit private citizens to form independent unions. There were no labor NGOs in the country.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The law allows for compulsory labor as a punishment for criminal offenses, requiring that convicted persons work in the place and job specified by the administration of the penal institution, potentially including private enterprises. Compulsory labor may also be applied as a punishment for libel and for violation of the established procedure for the organization of assemblies, meetings, or demonstrations.
The law provides for the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of suspected forced-labor and other trafficking offenses. The government did not report the number of convictions during the year under its criminal code. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate. Information on the sufficiency and consistency of penalties for violations was unavailable.
The government frequently pressed students and public-sector workers to participate in or watch public events such as parades, sporting events, or holiday celebrations.
Opposition and independent media reported some isolated and unsubstantiated accounts of government mobilization of workers, particularly public-sector workers, for cotton picking. Media also included unverified reports that public sector-workers were told to hire someone to go in their place if they could not go to pick cotton.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
According to the labor code, the minimum age at which a person can enter into a labor agreement or contract is 18. A 15-year-old child, however, may work four to six hours per day, up to 24 hours per week, with parental and trade union permission. The law prohibits children between the ages of 16 and 18 from working more than six hours per day or 36 hours per week. The law also prohibits children from working overtime or between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and protects children from exploitation in the workplace. A 2005 presidential decree bans child labor in all sectors and states specifically that children may not participate in the cotton harvest. Limited evidence, however, suggests that children may voluntarily work alongside their parents or other family members in the cotton harvest.
The Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor General’s Office are responsible for enforcing the prohibition on child labor and can impose penalties for violations, including fines of up to 2,000 manat ($570) or suspension of an employer’s operations for up to three months. There are no official figures available or independent reporting on the number of violations to assess whether the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor General’s Office effectively enforced the 2005 presidential decree prohibiting child labor.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination based on nationality, race, gender, origin, language, religion, disability, HIV-status or other communicable diseases, political beliefs, and social status. The government did not always effectively enforce the law, which does not specify penalties for discrimination on these grounds, with the exception of disability; discrimination against persons with disabilities is punishable by fines which are not sufficient to deter violations. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on age, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Discrimination in employment and occupation based on gender, language, and disability (see section 6) was widespread across all sectors of the economy and government. Certain government positions required language exams, and all government positions required a family background check going back three generations. Civil society members reported the country retained a strong cultural bias against women in positions of power and leadership, making it difficult for some women to secure managerial positions based on their gender. Although the 2013 Code on the Social Protection of the Population defines social protection policies for persons with disabilities and establishes quotas and workplaces for persons with disabilities, it was not broadly enforced. Members of the disability rights community reported that persons with disabilities were generally unable to find satisfactory employment due to unofficial discrimination. There was no information on discrimination against internal migrant workers.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The minimum monthly wage in all sectors was above the poverty line. The standard legal workweek is 40 hours with weekends off.
The law states overtime or holiday pay should be double the regular wage. The law prohibits pregnant women, women with children up to age three, women with disabled children younger than age 16, and single parents with two or more children from working overtime. Laws governing overtime and holiday pay were not effectively enforced. The government, as well as many private-sector employers, required workers to work 10 hours a day or a sixth day without compensation. Reports indicated many public-sector employees worked at least a half day on Saturdays. There were no clearly defined penalties for violation of wage and hour provisions, and no state agency was designated for enforcement.
The government did not set comprehensive standards for occupational health and safety. There is no state labor inspectorate. State trade unions, however, employed 14 labor inspectors, who have the right to issue improvement notices to government industries. According to the law, trade union inspectors cannot levy fines, and there are no mechanisms for enforcement of improvement notices.
Employers did not provide construction workers and industrial workers in older factories proper protective equipment and often made these workers labor in unsafe environments. Some agricultural workers faced environmental health hazards related to the application of defoliants in preparing cotton fields for mechanical harvesting. Workers did not have the right to remove themselves from work situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardy to their continued employment, and authorities did not protect employees in these situations. Statistics regarding work-related injuries and fatalities were not available.