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Deadly Prison Outbreak Belies Turkmenistan's 'Coronavirus-Free' Claim

Turkmen women wearing face masks in Ashgabat in July.
Turkmen women wearing face masks in Ashgabat in July.

DASHOGUZ, Turkmenistan -- Informed sources said on October 16 that a "very big" outbreak thought to be COVID-19 has struck a women's prison in nothern Turkmenistan in the latest blow to local authorities' insistence that the Central Asian republic has no infections despite the global pandemic raging all around it.

Relatives in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, meanwhile confirmed to RFE/RL the deaths of at least three inmates at the DZ-K/8 correctional facility for women in the Dashoguz region near the border with Uzbekistan.

The hermetic administration of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has maintained that there have been no confirmed coronavirus infections since the pathogen emerged from central China early this year to infect at least 39 million people.

There have been more than 230,000 official cases among Turkmenistan's four neighboring post-Soviet republics, with accusations that some of those states have also dramatically undertested and underreported.

Relatives of all three of the inmates whose relatives were informed of their deaths told RFE/RL that the women's bodies had not been delivered to their families.

Sources close to the prison who were not authorized to speak publicly about the outbreak said the number of suspected COVID-19 patients was "very big."

They said a special "quarantine block" was set up on prison grounds that was housing more than 200 inmates, some of whom were "in grave condition."

"The situation started in early September, but it seems the prison officials tried to hide it," a source told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. "However, last week, after the situation turned into a real problem and central authorities in Ashgabat learned about it, X-ray machines were brought to the correctional facility and it was revealed that hundreds of inmates' lungs have been damaged by an infection."

The DZ-K/8 prison authorities were not available for official comment.

Many Turkmen citizens say they prefer to stay home for treatment, fearing they may be infected with the coronavirus during visits to hospitals that are overwhelmed with patients with COVID-19-like symptoms.

The bodies of those dying of COVID-19-like lung problems are being delivered to their relatives in special plastic bags, and the number of fresh graves across the country is increasing exponentially.

Earlier in August, the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed concern over an increase of atypical pneumonia cases in Turkmenistan and unsuccessfully urged Ashgabat to allow it to organize independent coronavirus tests in the country.

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