PtG Article 20.09.2017

Beyond the white marble city

While the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games is heralded as the most important event in the history of Turkmenistan, the population suffers, findings in recent report by Human Rights Watch show.

An estimated 8,000 athletes from dozens of nations, are currently participating in more than 20 different sporting events at the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) in the Turkmen city of Ashgabat. 

The event is the most expensive international Indoor and Martial Arts Games so far. The cost of the Olympic village, where the games are held, has been estimated at US$5 billion, and the cost of a new international airport built in time for the games has cost nearly US$2.3 billion. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan is finding itself in one of the most severe economic crisis in the history of the country.

In a panel discussion facilitated by the radio service Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on September 10, Bruce Pennier, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent, said that it is the people of Turkmenistan who will pay the massive bill for hosting the Games.

“The burden for paying for these games are falling upon the people of Turkmenistan. State employees, and not only state employees, are having their wages ‘garnished’ and this is being presented as a voluntary donation to help out the games – which hardly any regular citizens of the country will be able to see,” Pennier explained.

Rights violations

A  report by the Human Rights Watch reveals systematic housing violations in Ashgabat during the construction of facilities for the AIMAG 2017.

Accordingly, Turkmenistan’s Property Law stipulates that the government may expropriate only “in cases prescribed by law, and in which the owner is provided equal property or compensation in full for the losses caused by the expropriation”.

However, there are no reports of cases in the past five years in which homeowners were adequately compensated, report findings reveal.

“The authorities are trying to boost Turkmenistan’s international prestige by hosting the AIMAG. But no one will be impressed by how monstrously they are cheating residents out of their homes and bullying homeowners,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The Turkmen government tightly controls all aspects of public life and denies freedoms of association, expression, and religion. The country is utterly closed to all independent scrutiny, and the government allows no media freedoms. Authorities often impose arbitrary travel bans on activists and relatives of exiled dissidents and others, and deny entry to foreign journalists, human rights defenders, and rights monitors, reports the Human Rights Watch.

Olympic council not doing enough to seek human rights improvements

In June, Human Rights Watch slammed the decision to let the country host the Indoor and Martial Arts Games because Turkmenistan’s human rights record is “inconsistent” with the principles stated in the Olympic Charter.

The Turkmen government’s suppression of media freedom contravenes the spirit of the Olympic Charter and could have a negative impact on the work of journalists covering the Games, writes the Human Rights Watch.

“The Turkmen government thoroughly represses its people,” said Denber, earlier this year.

“Its human rights record is an affront to Olympic principles, which the OCA is supposed to uphold,” added Denber.

In a series of letters to the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), whose member countries are all invited to participate at the AIMAG, Human Rights Watch asked OCA president, Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, to urge Turkmenistan to take steps to ease the repression and rights violations that would ensure that the OCA upholds its commitment to Olympic principles. These steps included – among other things:

  • Ceasing the harassment of journalists and other independent contributors to media;
  • Ensure that journalists, foreign and Turkmen alike, can report without fear of retribution on issues related to the Games and the context in which they take place;
  • Ensure that homeowners and residents forcibly evicted for construction of Games-related venues and infrastructure are fairly and adequately compensated;

“The OCA still has time to insist that the Turkmen government make some improvements. Failing to do so would mean squandering this unique opportunity and further emboldening the Turkmen government to commit abuses,” Denber said ahead of the AIMAG games opening.

The AIMAG opened on 17 September in Ashgabat and OCA have yet to respond to the appeal made by the Rights Watch.