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Student Vs. Student: Turkmen Government Recruits 'Snitches' To Spy On Classmates

Unofficial student spies are reportedly tasked with collecting information on their peers who criticize government policies. (file photo)
Unofficial student spies are reportedly tasked with collecting information on their peers who criticize government policies. (file photo)

Turkmenistan's security service is expanding its network of so-called informants among university students to spy on those who criticize the government or use proxies to access banned websites.

The reports on the recruitment of student spies comes from university students and professors who spoke on condition of anonymity to RFE/RL correspondents in the closed Central Asian country of some 5.5 million people, where any hint of opposition to the state is vigorously punished.

The sources claim there are curators from the National Security Ministry (MNB) among the staff at each university in Turkmenistan.

The sources told RFE/RL that these minders, working in different capacities, recruit informants in all classes of the university to spy on their fellow students.

These unofficial student spies are largely tasked with collecting information on the students who criticize government policies and monitoring the activities those students are engaged in outside of school.

The informants are allegedly instructed to try to start conversations with classmates on various topics, including politics, social issues, or religion to determine the young peoples' opinions and determine if they're anti-government.

The student snitches allegedly report to authorities those who express discontent with the dire economic situation in the country or merely show enthusiasm in debates about domestic politics or societal issues.

The sources told RFE/RL that the informants' tasks also include checking their peers' mobile phones, trying to read their messages, and checking their photos, with particular focus on those using WhatsApp and Telegram applications.

The main focus, however, remains to find students who use various Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to access the many websites that the secretive government in Ashgabat has blocked.

Among the blocked sites are opposition and independent news websites and social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter as well as Russian platforms like Odnoklassniki and VKontakte.

In return to for their spying activities, the students are often promised a future job in a government agency, the sources told RFE/RL.

Unemployment is widespread in the tightly controlled country ruled unwaveringly by authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

It's unclear exactly how many students have been recruited by the intelligence services in Turkmenistan. (file photo)
It's unclear exactly how many students have been recruited by the intelligence services in Turkmenistan. (file photo)

And dissatisfaction is spreading as skyrocketing unemployment and shortages of many basic goods permeates a country where the immense wealth from vast reserves of natural gas resources hasn't trickled down to ordinary people.

Besides the students, university professors are also being instructed by security services to keep an eye on students by monitoring their activities and opinions.

Those professors who defy the orders from the MNB risk losing their jobs, the sources told RFE/RL.

It remains unclear how many students or lecturers have been recruited by the intelligence services in Turkmenistan, but the sources allege they can be found among all class levels at the universities.

Sources say the number of informants has increased with the spread of Internet access, which is now easily available in Turkmenistan via smart phones.

Targeted At Home And Abroad

Security services are also targeting Turkmen students abroad.

Last year, RFE/RL spoke with several Turkmen students who said the authorities had summoned them for talks every time they returned home for the summer holidays.

According to a student who gave his first name as Aman, it's an open secret among Turkmen studying in Turkey that the Turkmen Embassy has tasked many students there to spy on their fellow students.

They are ordered to gather information about students' lives, contacts, and interests and report them to the embassy. It has resulted in a lack of trust among the students, several said, as they now treat each other with added caution.

From his own experiences and in citing some of his fellow students, Aman gave a list of the questions security services usually ask the students returning home for their summer break:

-- Who do you keep in contact with?

-- Do you live in a rented apartment or in a dormitory?

-- Who do you know among the Turkmen students abroad and can you provide information about them?

-- Do you know of any sponsors or organizations who provide financial aid to students?

Do Turkmen students abroad have any ties with foreign political groups?

Are the students interested in social media and do they actively use it?

Do you know students who provide [foreign] media with information about the situation in Turkmenistan or write about it on social media?

Aman said security services threaten the students that, if they refuse to "provide information" their families in Turkmenistan will not be able to "live in peace."

Aman was also offered the prospect of gaining a job at the National Security Ministry.

RFE/RL contacted several sources with the Turkmen security services who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. The officials confirmed they had summoned students for talks, but they insisted that such meetings are strictly limited to students suspected of having links to extremist religious organizations.

Turkmen authorities are well known for keeping a watchful eye on their citizens' movements both at home and abroad.

According to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondents located in the country's provinces, officials often interview the family members of migrant laborers working in Turkey and other countries.

The officials have often demanded that family members provide information about where their relatives are working and how often they call home.

Turkmenistan is widely seen as one of most repressive countries in the world and often compared in that regard to North Korea.

It has no independent media outlets and doesn't tolerate dissent.

Opposition figures and other government critics have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges, placed in psychiatric clinics, or forced to go into exile.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is the only international Turkmen-language media reporting independently on political, economic, cultural, and security issues from inside one of the the world’s most reclusive countries.