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Thursday 13 January 2022

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An online cafe in Turkmenistan, which the U.K.-based Cable.co.uk said had the slowest Internet speed of all 224 countries surveyed in 2021. (file photo)

ASHGABAT -- Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has ordered the National Security Ministry to impose further controls on the Internet in the tightly controlled Central Asian nation, which is already known for having the world's slowest and most expensive service.

Berdymukhammedov said at a televised session of the State Security Council on January 12 that "control over the Internet had not been properly conducted in 2021."

He ordered the National Security Ministry to focus more on people who post on social networks "ideas damaging to Turkmenistan's constitutional structures, actions that disrupt social order, and propagate terrorism, extremism, ultra-nationalism, and other illegal activities."

Berdymukhammedov's orders come days after protests over gas price hikes in neighboring Kazakhstan led to deadly nationwide unrest and the removal of Kazakhstan's first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, from the political scene. During the protests, Kazakh authorities switched off the Internet and restricted mobile-phone operations for five days.

Berdymukhammedov has ruled his country with an iron fist, tolerating little dissent while shutting it off from the outside world amid an economic crisis that has pushed many of its citizens into poverty.

The hard-line government in Ashgabat has stepped up control on people's access to information in recent years in an attempt to contain the message coming out of Turkmenistan about people's hardships, while also blocking any information coming from abroad that is critical of the Turkmen government.

In December, the U.K.-based Cable.co.uk said in a report on worldwide broadband speed that Turkmenistan, with an average Internet speed of 0.50 megabits per second (Mbps), was the slowest of all 224 countries surveyed in 2021. In Turkmenistan, it took just over 22 hours and 34 minutes to download a movie file with a size of 5 gigabytes.

People looking for their relatives gather outside a detention center in Shymkent on January 10.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have urged Kazakh authorities to respect human rights after detaining thousands amid anti-government rallies that turned deadly in the former Soviet republic's largest city, Almaty, last week.

Kazakh officials have said that almost 10,000 people were arrested across the country after protests over a sharp hike in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in the remote western region of Manghystau spread all the way to Almaty.

The unrest escalated and turned deadly as security forces battled against some in the streets who allegedly attacked police, captured and torched government buildings, and looted shops.

In its World Report 2022 issued on January 13, HRW said that Kazakh authorities "have failed to prioritize protecting human rights during the country’s current crisis, and should urgently cancel any order to shoot to kill without warning and uphold the rights of those in detention."

“With dozens, perhaps hundreds killed and thousands in detention, the human rights concerns over the crisis in Kazakhstan are acute and need to be urgently addressed,” HRW's Europe and Central Asia director, Hugh Williamson, said.

“The global spotlight is on authorities in Kazakhstan to show that they respect people’s basic human rights. Kazakhstan should be transparent about the recent events, investigate abuses by government forces, and hold those responsible accountable.”

A day earlier, Amnesty International demanded that Kazakhstan immediately release journalists and activists arrested during and after the unprecedented protests in the oil-rich Central Asian nation.

Amnesty said that individuals who did not commit internationally recognized crimes but were arrested arbitrarily and for violating Kazakhstan’s controversial law on public gatherings must be also released immediately.

The rights group also called on Kazakh authorities to conduct thorough and unbiased investigations into all reported human rights violations during the protests, including cases where police are accused of using deadly weapons against peaceful demonstrators.

The exact number of protesters killed during the unrest remains unknown, although Kazakh authorities have said that at least 18 law enforcement officers were killed.

A Telegram-channel affiliated with the Kazakh government said on January 10 that 164 civilians died during the unrest, but the Health Ministry said later that the figure was not true and was mistakenly published due to a technical malfunction.

"The silence of authorities regarding the exact number of victims from the unrest and the circumstances of their deaths is outrageous. The information about victims among the civilian population must be revealed immediately," Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said.

During the protests, Kazakh authorities switched off the Internet and restricted mobile-phone operations for five days.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev blamed rights activists and independent journalists for "inciting" the protests, which led to the arrest of several reporters in different towns and cities across the country. Some reporters are still said to be missing.

"Authorities must restore unlimited access to the Internet, unblock all other forms of communication, and stop repressing those who collect and share information. During a crisis, independent information has a decisive impact," Struthers said.

Officials in Kazakhstan said earlier this week that order has been restored in most of Kazakhstan.

Toqaev requested help from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as the protests spread on January 5.

The CSTO quickly sent more than 2,000 troops to Kazakhstan, mainly Russian soldiers, but also small contingencies from CSTO member states Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia.

On January 13, CSTO troops began withdrawing from Kazakhstan in a process authorities have said will last 10 days.

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