“Lose weight or lose your job,” police across Turkmenistan have been told as law-enforcement employees in the tightly controlled Central Asian nation undergo mandatory requalification tests.
The Interior Ministry has ordered officers to get in shape by December 25 if they want to keep their jobs, several police officers have told RFE/RL correspondents in Turkmenistan.
Some police say they’ve also been told to encourage relatives who live abroad to return to Turkmenistan by the end of 2019.
The officers spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals from a government that doesn’t tolerate criticism or allow free speech.
They said the Interior Ministry has told them police must not weigh more than 100 kilograms because the country’s newly appointed Interior Minister Mammedkhan Chakyev “doesn’t like fat cops.”
Those who fail to meet the weight-loss requirement must resign -- regardless of their rank, years of service, or other qualifications.
Similar measures have previously been taken in neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where authorities often criticize police about their fitness but rarely address allegations of widespread police corruption.
Turkmenistan's tight deadline for weight loss has led many officers to take up jogging or to start working out in stadiums, gyms, and public parks.
Police officers running and playing sports have suddenly become a common sight in the southeastern city of Mary, local RFE/RL correspondents report.
“In the stadium on Mary’s Ashgabat Street, police officers can be seen running nowadays,” our correspondents reported.
“They also play soccer and volleyball in a sports center located behind the prosecutors’ office and work out in a gym at the Ylham Palace.”
The requalification tests for Turkmen police also include background checks to determine if any of their close relatives have criminal records or live abroad.
Police in Lebap Province say they were told to convince relatives who live in other countries to return home by the end of the year, a local RFE/RL correspondent reported.
That's because Turkmen authorities are said to be concerned that many citizens are trying to flee the country to escape financial hardships and the lack of basic freedoms.
Turkmenistan is not the first country in Central Asia to order cops to shape up or ship out.
In 2017, Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry announced that 10 officers were dismissed for failing to lose excess weight within a six-month deadline.
About 100 hefty Tajik police officers were given official warnings.
Tajikistan also has instructed police to attend theater performances at least once a month to "help boost their spiritual and moral awareness and to unwind after a difficult working day.”
In Uzbekistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoev has said the country has “no need for an overweight police officer.”
“We are giving them a deadline: three to six months,” Mirziyoev said in March. “During this time, they should get in shape and shed that extra weight."
But chubby officers are the least concern for most ordinary citizens when it comes to fighting crime in Central Asia.
Police are notoriously corrupt in the region, with widespread allegations of police taking bribes and engaging in extortion, as well as being incompetent and mistreating detainees.
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Turkmenistan’s new interior minister reportedly has been taking measures to tackle corruption since he was appointed on October 1.
Our correspondents in Mary report that cameras have been installed to control traffic police officers, a move some residents have welcomed as bringing change.
“Instead of getting bribes as they usually did before, police are now writing penalty tickets to traffic offenders,” RFE/RL’s correspondent quoted local residents as saying.
Several officers were reportedly arrested in Mary after being caught in October trying to extort bribes.
Low police wages are often cited as an explanation for bribe-taking cops.
According to several law-enforcement agency employees who spoke to RFE/RL in Lebap Province, police salaries in the area range from $80 to $140 a month.
In the capital, Ashgabat, residents say the number of police on duty has increased significantly since Chakyev became interior minister.
"In my neighborhood, they mostly catch people who cross the highway instead of using the underpass,” one Ashgabat resident told RFE/RL, adding that people want real reforms not “superficial” changes.