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Turkmen Police Detain Couples Holding Hands, Looking Romantic In Public

Police in Turkmenistan have been detaining couples for sitting close to each other or holding hands in public. (file photo)
Police in Turkmenistan have been detaining couples for sitting close to each other or holding hands in public. (file photo)

LEBAP PROVINCE, Turkmenistan -- A young married couple in the city of Turkmenabat were hugging inside their parked car when a policeman approached and threatened to arrest them for undermining moral values.

“I was hugging my wife to calm her down because she was crying as we were discussing how to get enough money for some needed medicine,” the man said. “We’re struggling financially these days. At that moment the policeman came and confronted us.”

The man told RFE/RL that the officer patrolling their Bahar neighborhood demanded that the couple show their passports and marriage certificate to prove they were legally married.

The man said that, despite eventually establishing the couple’s marital status, the policeman didn’t let them go and instead tried to extort a bribe.

“When I refused to give him money, the officer threatened me: ‘Don’t forget that you live in this city, [so we will meet again],’” the man said he was told in describing the May 7 incident.

The man spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals by officials in the strictly controlled Central Asian nation, one the most repressive countries in the world.

There have been multiple reports in recent weeks of similar incidents in Turkmenabat, the capital of the northeastern Lebap Province, in which police target couples holding hands, sitting close, kissing, or hugging in public places.

Public displays of affection are not banned in Turkmenistan, but police in other Turkmen regions, including the capital, Ashgabat, and Mary Province were previously accused of arresting young men and women in parks and on the streets for violating “social norms.”

“Offenders” in Mary were taken away in handcuffs to police stations and forced to attend lectures on moral values.

Turkmenabat residents say the latest restriction in their city began in April when several local students and other young people complained about being ambushed by officers seemingly acting as morality police.

In most cases the incidents ended with police extorting money from the couples, according to several people involved in the raids.

'Unbecoming For Turkmen'

A student from the Turkmenhimiya vocational school told RFE/RL that he was targeted by police while on a date with a young woman at the city’s Gorogly Park earlier this month.

“I was kissing the girl on her forehead when I noticed a policeman photographing us on his phone. He then told us: ‘aren’t you ashamed of behaving like this in a public place?’” the student told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.

The officer then proceeded to arrest the couple for “disturbing public order,” the student claimed, adding that the policeman finally let them go after he paid bribes.

“I told him that I have [the equivalent of] $20 in my pocket. The policeman’s serious face immediately broke into a smile and he told us: ‘Don’t be naughty here,’” the Turkmenabat student said.

A young woman and man walking on the street in Ashgabat.
A young woman and man walking on the street in Ashgabat.

Another resident claimed he and his girlfriend were stopped while holding hands at the city’s National Flag Square early one evening last month.

The young man said an officer scolded the couple for their “shameful behavior that is unbecoming for Turkmen, especially under the national flag,” and tried to force them into a police vehicle.

“The officers threatened to open a criminal case against me on a charge of resisting a police officer,” the man told RFE/RL. “Then one of the officers took me to one side and demanded [the equivalent of] $30. I told him that I only have $10 with me. He took the money and let us go.”

RFE/RL cannot verify the residents’ claims. Regional officials in Lebap didn’t respond to requests for comment.

But authorities in Turkmenistan are notorious for restricting their citizens’ liberties and civil rights.

In the coastal province of Balkan, police imposed an unofficial nighttime curfew earlier this year that banned people from leaving their homes after 9 p.m.

Residents said they received leaflets from regional police that warned them against "walking on the streets in the evenings with or without a purpose."

Female high school students in the Balkan and Dashoguz provinces have been subjected to mandatory virginity tests, which officials say are needed to evaluate the teenagers’ morality. The controversial test were conducted without the consent of either the students or their parents.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by the Turkmen Service’s correspondent in Lebap Province

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