Rights Groups Slam Evictions, Demolitions In Turkmen Capital Ahead Of International Games

Two human rights groups say homeowners and residents in Turkmenistan's capital have had to endure "massive housing violations" ahead of this month's Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG).

The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) in Vienna and the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on September 4 that the Turkmen government had "forcibly evicted" homeowners in Ashgabat and demolished their homes "without adequate compensation" in preparation for the games.

They said that Turkmen authorities had also "systematically demolished extensions and additions homeowners have made to their properties, without allowing them to appeal the demolition decisions to a court," in order to "standardize the city’s appearance" ahead of the September 17-27 competition.

Authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov appears to want to use the event to cast Turkmenistan as a regional sports hub.

The isolated country expects tens of thousands of foreigners to visit during the event.

Ahead of the competition, authorities have banned the sale of alcohol in Ashgabat, restricted the movement of residents of the provinces to the capital, ordered former inmates to stay away from the games' venues, and tried to clear the city of stray dogs and cats as well as child beggars.

'White Marble City'

"Thousands of people have been deprived of their property or left in squalid housing, in order to transform Ashgabat into a white marble city and to prepare for the games," said TIHR's executive director, Farid Tuhbatillin. "The games will last all of 10 days, but people left with inadequate or no housing will suffer for years to come unless they are properly compensated."

TIHR and HRW urged the Turkmen government to ensure that Ashgabat homeowners and residents who have been evicted get "fair and adequate" compensation for the loss of their property.

They said the authorities should also immediately take steps to provide residents who were denied compensation or left homeless access to an "effective judicial mechanism capable of promptly and fairly awarding them their compensation and any other appropriate remedy."

Ashgabat homeowners are entitled to an alternative "equivalent" living space or financial compensation for expropriated homes, but TIHR and HRW documented that in many cases the "compensation apartments" were worth significantly less than the total worth of their property or were too small for the family's needs.

Authorities also forced some homeowners to accept "upgraded" apartments, demanding that "families pay the difference beyond the assessed worth...and denied them the title to the new property until they paid."

"Residents who tried to contest the expropriation of their homes, or seek better compensation, were denied justice, threatened with homelessness, and in some cases, harassed or threatened by the authorities," TIHR and HRW said.

Death Threat

Last month, the two rights groups called on the Olympic Council of Asia to remind Turkmenistan of its rights obligations.

As the organizer of the upcoming competition, the Olympic Council of Asia "should urge the Turkmen government to ensure that all journalists can do their work without fear of retaliation ahead of, during, and after the games," an August 8 statement said.

The call came after a correspondent for RFE/RL in Turkmenistan was threatened with death by a man who identified himself as a police officer.

While en route to take photos documenting Turkmenistan's Day of Bicycles on July 29, Soltan Achilova said the man warned her against taking photos or she would be "finished."

The previous week Achilova, 68, said a man tried to steal her phone as she was about to take a picture. The two recent attacks follow several incidents of harassment against Achilova in November 2016.