MARY, Turkmenistan -- Police in southeastern Turkmenistan have been seen randomly detaining people who look disheveled or are wearing old clothes.
Stopped on the streets, they are accused of begging or being homeless and are taken away by police, eyewitnesses told RFE/RL correspondents.
A police source told RFE/RL the authorities have sent some of the detainees to toil as a “free workforce” on state-owned farms.
The detentions in cities across Mary Province began in mid-March as part of an unannounced police operation to remove the homeless and beggars from cities and towns.
In one incident in the provincial capital, Mary, an off-duty factory worker narrowly escaped arrest after passersby intervened.
“I’m not homeless. I wear old clothes because I can’t afford new ones,” the man was heard pleading with officers, who tried to stuff him into a police van.
He was only freed after people told police he has a job and was going to work, eyewitnesses say.
A policeman in the city of Mary confirmed to RFE/RL that the head of the province's Interior Ministry recently ordered officers to clear out people living on the streets.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officer said that, as part of the operation, police were instructed to detain not only the homeless but also people wearing old clothes.
He added that authorities in Mary have sent some of the detainees to work on farms as unpaid labor.
The officer claimed that the healthier people among those detained are the ones selected for the agricultural work.
RFE/RL could not confirm the policeman's claim because officials in the strictly controlled Central Asian country refuse to speak to nonstate media outlets.
After hearing complaints from people about the recent arrests in Mary, RFE/RL correspondents visited a police station on Oguzhan Street where a group of people had gathered to seek information about family members recently taken away by police.
Police officials told them their relatives were detained because of their disheveled appearance, the correspondents reported.
'I'm Not Afraid'
One woman at the police station demanded that authorities immediately release her husband, who was detained on his way home from work at a bazaar.
The woman said her husband’s work involves transporting and loading goods. Private workers in bazaars don’t have uniforms and it’s not unusual for them to wear old clothes that often get dirty while carrying sacks of fruits and vegetables, for example, or unloading goods from a truck.
The woman’s conversation with officers at the police station turned into a heated argument, a rare incident in the authoritarian state where people avoid challenging government officials for fear of arbitrary punishment or being prosecuted.
Police officials warned the woman that she would lose her job if she continued arguing.
But the woman -- an employee at the Municipal Water and Sewer Utility Services -- stood her ground and told them she wasn't afraid.
Later, she told RFE/RL -- on condition that her name not be published -- that police eventually promised to release her husband.
The woman said she doesn’t fear losing her job as her wages don’t even cover her family’s most basic needs, such as food and clothes.
She said that in addition to regular taxes and other dues, her employer deducts a significant portion of her monthly salary for various government projects.
Most recently, the woman and her co-workers were told they must regularly pitch in to help pay for the construction of homes being built by the state.
Such forced payments are commonplace in Turkmenistan, where some state employees are ordered to buy holiday packages in government-owned hotels or to pay for the renovation of schools.
“My children don’t have enough to eat. Our house is falling down [because we can’t afford to renovate]. Why should I pay for government projects?” the woman told RFE/RL.
Keeping The Poor Out Of Sight
Rampant unemployment, rising food prices, and a lack of government support have pushed many Turkmen to the brink of poverty in recent years.
It’s not unusual in big cities in Turkmenistan to see ordinary people -- including women and children -- rummaging through dumpsters and garbage cans looking for food.
The Turkmen government under despotic President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has failed to address or even publicly acknowledge people’s grievances.
Instead, it has deployed police in the cities to round up beggars, the homeless, and those coming from villages to scavenge for discarded food or look for odd jobs in a country with massive unemployment.
Operations to clear the streets often take place ahead of mass celebrations and parades or when Ashgabat hosts international events or foreign dignitaries.
In a notorious police operation ahead of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, officers also detained people who they determined looked sloppy and unkempt.
Hundreds of migrant workers from the provinces were rounded up and sent back to their homes ahead of the games. Squads were also tasked with killing and disposing of stray dogs and cats.
The Turkmen government is known for organizing lavish parades, concerts, and national sporting events to celebrate Independence Day, the New Year, and other occasions, including various harvest days.
Ahead of Independence Day events, police in Ashgabat detain the homeless and send them to rural areas where they are temporarily put in state-owned facilities, such as retirement homes.
They are only allowed to return to the cities after the celebrations are over.