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:
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
c. Freedom of Religion
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.
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.