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A Turkish Diplomat's Mysterious Death In Turkmenistan

Turkish diplomat Kemal Uchkun
Turkish diplomat Kemal Uchkun

Turkish diplomat Kemal Uchkun had been stationed in Turkmenistan since January 2018.

On June 27, Uchkun realized his coughing fits that had started two days earlier were probably something serious.

He went to a hospital in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, where he was admitted with respiratory problems and treated for pneumonia.

He never left alive.

According to official records in Turkmenistan, Uchkun died of heart failure after being admitted to hospital with pneumonia in the midst of a sudden wave of deaths that Turkmen officials have attributed to pneumonia.

But one person familiar with the sequence of events leading up to Uchkun’s death says the diplomat died from COVID-19.

That source, who requested anonymity over fears of reprisal for speaking out, told RFE/RL that Uchkun might have been saved had Turkmen officials not been so obsessed with clinging to the government’s claim that coronavirus does not exist in Turkmenistan.

Uchkun passed away at night on July 7. A plane specially sent from Turkey took his body away for burial back home shortly after.

Negative Test Result

RFE/RL’s source wanted to give their account of the events that occurred from the time Uchkun was admitted to the hospital until his death.

According to the source, Uchkun was being treated for pneumonia and doctors at the Ashgabat hospital gave him antibiotics.

The source says Turkmen doctors tested Uchkun for coronavirus on two separate occasions but, both times, said the results were negative.

As the Turkish diplomat’s condition worsened, he obtained his medical records, including X-rays taken several days apart, and had them sent to several doctors in Turkey to get their opinions.

Those doctors in Turkey included physicians who specialize in treating coronavirus cases.

They believed it was more than 90 percent certain that Uchkun had the coronavirus and recommended Uchkun return to Turkey immediately for treatment.

On his seventh day in the hospital, Uchkun requested emergency evacuation.

But according to RFE/RL’s source, Turkmen officials refused to allow a Turkish medical-evacuation plane to fly into Turkmenistan.

To some extent, this is not entirely surprising.

People wearing protective face masks in Ashgabat on July 13.
People wearing protective face masks in Ashgabat on July 13.

Since early March, Turkmenistan has rerouted all international flights arriving in Turkmenistan to the airport in the eastern city of Turkmenabat, several hundred kilometers to the east of Ashgabat.

The medical-evacuation plane that Turkey wanted to send was naturally requesting landing permission in Ashgabat where Uchkun was hospitalized.

This should not have been a major hurdle. But for some reason, it was.

Permission for the flight into Ashgabat was only granted on July 9, two days after Uchkun died.

From the time Uchkun received the opinions of the Turkish physicians until his death, doctors at the Ashgabat hospital continued to treat him with antibiotics.

Uchkun knew to ask for antiviral therapy. But doctors at the Ashgabat hospital continued treating him with antibiotics, which are ineffective against viral infections because they can't kill viruses.

Turkmen officials’ insistence that the country has no cases of coronavirus defies reason.

Turkmenistan’s neighbors -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran -- have registered tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases.

Unofficial information from inside Turkmenistan suggests the virus is already hitting the population hard.

Turkmen authorities have occasionally introduced measures that other countries have implemented to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

But in Turkmenistan, officials have never admitted that COVID-19 is the reason for the new public health measures.

For example, wearing masks was unofficially prohibited, with police actually removing masks from people’s faces, until July 8, just after a team from the World Health Organization (WHO) arrived and the day after Uchkun died.

Suddenly, wearing masks in public became mandatory in the Central Asian former Soviet republic.

The official reason for the new mask rule was to protect people from dust. But dust blows regularly through Turkmenistan, as most of the country is desert.

When strong winds blow from the northeast, they often carry salt from the dried-up bottom of the desiccated Aral Sea.

There have never previously been calls from authorities for people to wear masks.

WHO Recommendations

That visit by the WHO team was originally scheduled for late April. But Turkmen authorities delayed the team’s arrival for more than two months.

At a July 15 press conference, WHO mission chief Catherine Smallwood said the team visited all sites agreed upon in advance with Turkmen authorities.

She said the team had not seen or heard anything that would contradict the Turkmen government’s assertion that coronavirus does not exist in the country.

However, Smallwood did recommend that Turkmen authorities act “as if COVID-19 was circulating” in the country.

She also commented on the “reports of increased cases of acute respiratory disease or pneumonia of unknown cause.”

She said the WHO recommended “that surveillance and testing systems are scaled up, and that samples are sent to WHO reference laboratories for confirmed testing.”

Turkmen authorities shut the country off from the rest of the world years ago, making it virtually impossible to independently verify the many claims of success the government continues to make.

Ashgabat has gone to great lengths to preserve their myths.

It is difficult to imagine that any person, particularly a foreign diplomat, would be allowed to die in order to maintain a government's claim that COVID-19 does not exist in the country.

But RFE/RL’s source has no doubt that is exactly what happened to Uchkun in Turkmenistan.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, contributed to this report

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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