Freedom in the World
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Turkmenistan is a highly repressive authoritarian state where citizens’ political rights and civil liberties are almost completely denied in practice. Saparmurat Niyazov, the president of Turkmenistan from independence until his death in 2006, created a pervasive personality cult, and his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has sought to replace it with his own. Elections in Turkmenistan are controlled by the state, ensuring nearly unanimous victories for the president and his party. Corruption is systemic, religious groups and minorities are persecuted, and political dissent is not tolerated. Numerous political prisoners remain behind bars or unaccounted for, and reports of torture and other human rights abuses are common.
- In September, the legislature adopted constitutional revisions that removed the age limit of 70 for presidential candidates and increased presidential terms from five years to seven.
- Changes to the law on religion enacted in March raised new obstacles for religious groups seeking registration. Activities by unregistered groups are considered illegal.
- Journalists and others who disseminated information about the economic situation faced harassment and violence, as authorities attempted to suppress evidence of hardship associated with low global energy prices.
President Berdimuhamedov took a number of steps to reinforce his control over the state during 2016, apparently motivated by the worsening economic situation. With persistently low oil and gas prices driving down export revenues, there were reports of unpaid wages and food shortages across the country.
In September, the parliament enacted constitutional changes that removed the age ceiling of 70 for presidential candidates and extended presidential terms from five years to seven. The revisions meant that Berdimuhamedov, still just 59, could continue to seek reelection indefinitely and would not have to renew his mandate as often. The next presidential election was due in 2017. Meanwhile, the president also moved to bolster the position of his son, Serdar Berdimuhamedov. He was appointed as deputy minister of foreign affairs in July and won a parliament seat in a November by-election that received virtually no media coverage.
Also during the year, the president arbitrarily dismissed cabinet ministers and many local officials, and eliminated both the Ministry of Oil and Gas and the State Agency for Managing Hydrocarbon Resources in July, citing corruption and poor performance. The moves were seen as part of an effort to cut expenses, maintain presidential dominance, and shift blame for the economic crisis.
State authorities continued to limit the availability of independent information, harass and imprison critics and their relatives, and persecute ethnic minorities and religious groups. In March the president signed legislation that tightened restrictions on religious freedom, in part by raising the membership threshold for registration of a religious group from 5 to 50. Only registered religious groups are able to operate legally.
Local journalists working with U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen-language service faced persistent harassment during the year. For example, Soltan Achilova was questioned by police, then assaulted by unknown attackers who seized her camera, after taking photographs of a supermarket queue in October. She was threatened and assaulted again later in the year. Another contributor to the news service who had reported on the economic situation, Khudayberdy Allashov, was arrested along with his mother in December when police raided his home and beat him. They were charged with possessing illegal chewing tobacco and remained in detention at year’s end.
Among other hostile acts against family members of government critics, the brother of exiled dissident journalist Chary Annamuradov was kidnapped and beaten to death in September.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Turkmenistan, see Freedom in the World 2016.