The Diplomat has learned that two political prisoners in Turkmenistan have died of unknown causes in the last year, both of them among the graduates of the country’s Turkish schools who were arrested in 2016 and 2017. The schools, taken over by the government in 2011, have a long history in Turkmenistan which corresponds with the influence there of the movement led by Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen.
In 1993, Turkish President Turgut Özal opened an eponymous school in former Soviet republic Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat. It was the first of a series of boarding schools, language centers, and a university established in Turkmenistan. The schools, supported by Ankara as a tool of Turkish soft power, were operated and funded by Turkish and Turkmen followers of Gülen. They were widely regarded as the best in the country, where the overall quality of education is low. Gülen-affiliated schools were established throughout Central Asia in the mid-1990s and eventually expanded into over 100 countries around the world.
“The teachers are good people. They came to the country when it was really in a devastated state…[and] had a big impact on the lives of the graduates,” said Myrat D.*, one of the graduates. “[The schools] moved the country 20, maybe even 40 years forward.”
Various classes were taught in English, Turkish and Turkmen, and the “Turkish schools,” as they were called, closely followed the official Turkmen curriculum, usually with Turkish teachers and Turkmen principals. There were no religion classes, but there were lessons teaching morality, and the teachers were all pious Muslims and Gülen devotees who taught by example, sometimes holding after-class gatherings. By many accounts, graduates were regarded as some of the most skilled in the country, and include many celebrities, successful business people, and high ranking bureaucrats.
“They’re well-educated, they speak at least three languages, [and] they’re really good at chemistry, biology [and] mathematics,” said Ruslan Myatiev, a Turkmen journalist and director of the Netherlands-based Turkmen.news.
Many of the graduates have positive views of Fethullah Gülen, but Myrat estimates that only a minority became dedicated followers, and there was no systemic indoctrination of Gülen’s ideas in any of the classes. Most enrolled simply because the schools were the best in the country.
Gülen is the leader of a powerful global movement that preaches moderate Islam, interfaith dialogue, and scientific education, but also wielded a mighty media empire and encouraged its followers in Turkey to take up positions in the bureaucracy, judiciary and security services in order to influence state policy and the outcome of political trials.
The movement was a close ally of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) before a ferocious falling out that came to a head in December, 2013. The AKP accuses Gülen’s followers of being behind the aborted coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016 which resulted in 272 deaths.
The Turkish schools in Turkmenistan were established largely thanks to Muammer Türkyılmaz, a Turkish national and member of the Gülen movement who was close to independent Turkmenistan’s first strongman leader, Saparmyrat Niyazov (Türkmenbaşı). Türkyılmaz was appointed Turkmenistan’s deputy minister of education in 2007.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Turkey, mostly thanks to the Gülen movement, was very influential in Turkmenistan. Turkish billionaire businessman and Gülen sympathizer Ahmet Çalık was allegedly Niyazov’s closest advisor, and helped establish a Turkmen version of the Gülen-aligned newspaper Zaman. He was granted Turkmen citizenship and served as minister of textiles for 15 years. Çalık’s huge Turkish conglomerate Çalık Holding was previously headed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, who is now Turkey’s minister of finance and treasury.
Turkish government statistics indicate that 600 Turkish firms are currently registered in Turkmenistan. Ashgabat is also the single largest buyer of Turkish arms, accounting for 29 percent of exports.
“A lot of businessmen related to the Gülen movement were very active in the business and trade relations between Turkey and Turkmenistan,” wrote Bayram Balcı, a researcher specializing in Islamic movements in Central Asia at Istanbul’s French Institute for Anatolian Studies, in an email.
In 2010-11, the Turkmen government nationalized most of the Turkish schools. It’s unclear exactly why the authorities took this step, though it may have been due to Ashgabat’s suspicion of independent institutions and fears that the schools could be fostering political Islam.
“Before the rupture between Gülen and Erdoğan, the Turkmen government, considering that the Turkish schools had already formed enough new elites, had itself decided to close the schools,” Balcı said.
In September and October 2016, following the aborted July 15 coup in Turkey, around 100 graduates of the schools were arrested in Turkmenistan. In February 2017, 18 of them were sentenced to a total of 333 years in prison, charged with “incitement of social, national, ethnic, racial or religious hostility” and “organization of or participation in a criminal organization.”
Another 50 were reportedly taken into custody in the country’s Lebap province in April and May 2017, and, according to Myrat, 10 were given prison sentences in June 2017, which had not been previously reported. Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, confirms the June sentencing, and has recently obtained the court verdict.
Denber says many of the arrested men were held in total isolation for about a year during pretrial detention. “Their families could only guess at where they were.” Furthermore, defendants in such a political trial almost certainly couldn’t receive a proper legal defense. “A lawyer who would mount any kind of robust defense could only expect to be expelled from the bar,” or even arrested, said Denber.
In Turkey itself, authorities have jailed tens of thousands of people since the failed coup, and hundreds of thousands more have been fired and blacklisted. Ankara has also pressured other countries to crack down on suspected Gülen sympathizers.
On September 13, 2016, shortly before the first arrests, a phone call took place between the presidents of both countries, with some reports speculating that the topics included the crackdown against Gülen followers. Last year, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu praised Ashgabat’s crackdown, saying “Turkmenistan was one of the first countries to take the bravest steps before and after the coup attempt.” Ankara has also requested the extradition of Türkyılmaz, the former deputy minister of education, who it accused of being the Gülen network’s head of operations for Asia.
Observers can only speculate why exactly Turkmen authorities imprisoned the specific people it did. “It’s very difficult to know, because the system is so opaque, and no one was allowed to be at those trials,” HRW’s Denber said.
“These people were teachers and businessmen who didn’t commit any crime,” insisted Myrat.
Hundreds of thousands of other Turkish school graduates have been left alone, and it’s likely many even work in the civil service, particularly in migration services, according to journalist Myatiev. Authorities may suspect the men they arrested of being dedicated Gülen followers, or of having helped finance or set up the schools. Turkish school graduates may be tolerated in Turkmenistan, but it’s now reportedly impossible to be an open Gülen supporter, and the movement has been virtually wiped out in the country.
“I don’t think that we can say there is a Gülen movement now in Turkmenistan. The Turkish members of the movement have left the country […] and the local Turkmen ‘members’ or the people who worked in the Gülen institutions don’t want to talk about their past,” academic Balcı wrote in his email.
Myatiev also stresses that there is no rule of law in Turkmenistan, and political arrests are often completely arbitrary, based on bogus accusations, false information obtained under torture, or phone contacts of those taken into custody. Turkmenistan is one of the most closed, authoritarian countries in the world, and authorities have little tolerance for any independent groups or gatherings. “The government wants to control all groups. There can’t be unsanctioned gatherings or private meetings,” Myatiev said.
Pious Muslims are subject to particularly harsh oppression, with many accounts of men being made to drink alcohol or forcibly shaved by authorities.
“Communities of all faiths, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, are subject to government control [and] surveillance. Basically, the government would prefer for them not to exist,” said Felix Corley, of Norwegian religious freedom advocacy group Forum 18. “Muslims in particular are the ones the government is afraid of.”
Turkmenistan is also in the midst of its worst economic crisis since independence, with hyperinflation, food rationing and bread lines, a situation which only exacerbates authoritarianism. According to some reports, up to 2 million people have fled the country, approximately one-third of its population.
Myrat, who fled to the United States when authorities were taking people into custody, knows about half a dozen of those arrested, and communicates regularly with their close friends inside and outside of Turkmenistan. Although most messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Signal are banned in Turkmenistan, Myrat says many people with Internet access now use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to bypass the ban.
According to Myrat’s information, two of the prisoners have died – 38-year-old businessman Akmyrat Soyunov on October 8, 2018, and 37-year-old teacher Eziz Hudayberdiyev on June 30 of this year. Myrat has provided The Diplomat with a death certificate for Soyunov, which several experts have said looks authentic.
Bayram Bayramov*, another of the graduates who fled abroad, personally knew both Soyunov and Hudayberdiyev, being especially close friends with the former. He described Soyunov, who was married with three children and studied at universities in Turkey, as easy-going and warm, and said he was healthy when he was arrested. Hudayberdiyev, who was married with four children, taught English at one of the Turkish schools in Lebap province.
Bayramov also said many other Gülen sympathizers have fled Turkmenistan, and those who remain live in constant fear. “Right now even if [the authorities] aren’t putting [suspected Gülen sympathizers] in jail, they’re calling them in from time to time, so this state of fear continues,” he said. “They’re living with the fear they could be taken in at any moment.”
The causes of death of the prisoners are unknown, but Myrat and Bayramov say both were in good health when they were arrested. “Young, healthy people go there and then die. That doesn’t make sense,” Myrat said.
The Prove They Are Alive! campaign, jointly run by several international NGOs, has documented almost 30 deaths in Turkmen prisons and over 120 cases of disappeared prisoners. Forum 18’s Corley says torture is widespread and prison conditions are grim.
“All the prisons are overcrowded. You need to pay a bribe to do anything,” he said. “People contract tuberculosis or other things from other prisoners or from lack of care.”
Myrat says before being allowed medical treatment, a committee must be formed to decide whether or not to grant prisoners leave to a hospital. Usually prisoners who can afford it can bribe guards to get what they need, but guards are often afraid of helping political prisoners. “Everyone is afraid to touch them or be seen as though they are helping them or close to them,” he said.
Following pressure from abroad, prison conditions have reportedly eased up, if only marginally, with families now allowed to visit prisoners once every month or two, speaking to them on a phone through thick glass.
Myrat says it isn’t known if the prisoners have been tortured in jail, but those who were detained in 2016 and released a few months later had clear signs of having been beaten. “Of those who were released, it was [clear] that they went through lots of torture – they were skinny and had many signs of torture,” he said.
The men are all held in the Ovadan Depe jail, a maximum security facility in the desert near Ashgabat where political prisoners are sent.
Forum 18 has documented prisoner deaths from Ovadan Depe. “Some of the cases we’ve covered of the deaths of prisoners there, the families get back their bodies and they weigh 30 kilos, [and are] emaciated. It’s pretty unpleasant,” Corley said.
Those who’ve fled abroad have had to start their lives all over again. “You leave everything behind, and you start from zero,” Bayramov said. “It isn’t easy.”
Myrat says he feels safe now in the United States, but feels heartbroken for his friends who couldn’t escape. “It’s so sad. You cry. And for what? Going to a school, reading some books.”
* Not their real names, for fear of repercussions to family members still in Turkmenistan
Nick Ashdown is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey. He tweets at @Nick_Ashdown