Repression casts shadow on Asian Games in Turkmenistan, rights groups say

ASHGABAT (TCA) — Turkmenistan will host the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) starting September 17 amid an appalling record of human rights abuse, Human Rights Watch and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) said on September 13.

The leadership of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) have made no visible efforts to urge the Turkmen government to address a single human rights concern, the rights groups said.

The Games which will be held in Ashgabat through September 27 will draw athletes from dozens of nations of Asia and Oceania for 21 sporting events.

“The OCA’s silence about abuse in Turkmenistan is deafening,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The OCA has utterly failed the Olympic charter’s ideals that it is supposed to uphold.”

The OCA, the owner and organizer of the games, is one of the five continental associations recognized by the International Olympic Committee. It is committed to upholding “Olympic Principles as defined in the Olympic Charter,” which in turn enshrines press freedom and human dignity as values the Olympic movement should uphold across all sporting federations.

Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries in the world. The government has a long record of tightly controlling virtually all aspects of public life and severely punishing even the mildest criticism of government policies. Steps taken by Turkmen authorities during preparations for the games indicate that while hosting the games may bring prestige for the government, they have led only to further human rights violations and restrictions for the country’s citizens, the rights groups said.

The government further restricted residents’ travel abroad and within the country, severely harassed and threatened one of the country’s few independent reporters, and informed visitors – presumably including foreign journalists – that they must hire “minders” to move around outside the area of the games’ venues and related hotels and restaurants. The authorities have also closed schools in Ashgabat for the duration of the games.

The Turkmen government goes to great lengths to isolate its citizens from foreigners. In recent weeks, authorities have also reportedly cordoned off areas around the zone where the games will take place, presumably for security reasons, but the move will further separate visiting foreigners.

“The AIMAG is a medium-scale athletic competition, and shouldn’t be a state of emergency,” said Farid Tuhbatullin, director of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. “The Turkmen government has no business imposing such draconian restrictions on its people, not for these games, not ever.”

The Turkmen authorities demolished thousands of homes in the years leading up to the games for urban reconstruction and renewal to remake the city’s appearance. TIHR and Human Rights Watch documented that the authorities cheated many homeowners out of fair compensation for their homes. Neither the Turkmen government nor the OCA responded to letters from TIHR and Human Rights Watch expressing concern about the unfair compensation.

The cost of the Olympic village, where the games will be held, has been estimated at US$5 billion, and the cost of a new international airport built in time for the games is estimated to be approximately US$2.3 billion.

The Turkmen government has repeatedly touted the games as an opportunity to “show itself to the whole world.”

“The only thing the Turkmen government is showing the world is its perverse, terrible treatment of its people,” Denber said. “No amount of games and fanfare can cover that up. It is appalling that the OCA is allowing Olympic values to be so thoroughly degraded.”

Sergey Kwan


Sergey Kwan has worked for The Times of Central Asia as a journalist, translator and editor since its foundation in March 1999. Prior to this, from 1996-1997, he worked as a translator at The Kyrgyzstan Chronicle, and from 1997-1999, as a translator at The Central Asian Post.
Kwan studied at the Bishkek Polytechnic Institute from 1990-1994, before completing his training in print journalism in Denmark.

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