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Turkmen Authorities Slammed For 'Threatening' Relatives Of Exiled Dissidents

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has carefully constructed a personality cult to himself in the country.

Four leading human rights groups have criticized the authoritarian leadership of Turkmenistan for "threatening" the relatives of dissidents living abroad.

In a joint statement on May 13, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), and Amnesty International said that in early May, Turkmen security officials questioned and threatened a 14-year-old boy in retaliation for the outspoken views of his uncle, Rozybai Jumamuradov, a former correspondent of RFE/RL in Turkmenistan who currently resides in Turkey.

The human rights watchdogs urged the Turkmen authorities to immediately end their harassment of relatives of dissidents based abroad and uphold freedom of expression and respect for basic rights within the country.

Government critics and human rights groups have long accused President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of suppressing dissent and making few changes in the restrictive country since he came to power after the death of autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.

Jumamuradov told TIHR that on May 4 the security services in Turkmenistan's eastern Lebap region summoned his nephew, cursed and shouted at him, and threatened to imprison him and his parents because of their contacts with Jumamuradov.

They also brought the boy's mother to the police station and interrogated and intimidated her in the presence of her son before releasing them.

This followed earlier acts of intimidation targeting Jumamuradov's family.

On April 26, national security officials summoned and questioned the boy's father.

Prior to this, on March 21, unidentified people called the boy's family and threatened to kill them unless they ceased communicating with Jumamuradov.

Jumamuradov, who had to flee Turkmenistan in 2009 after the authorities learned about his work for RFE/RL, is an outspoken critic of the government.

Another Turkmen activist and former journalist, Devlet Bayhan, who is based in Germany and runs a video blog critical of the authorities, told TIHR that national security officials had visited and threatened his relatives in the city of Mary several times since late March.

Bayhan said that two of his relatives were fired from their jobs in early April in retaliation for his activism. Officials warned one of his family members, whose son is currently serving in the army, that he might not return alive unless Bayhan ceased his activities.

In the past year, human rights organizations have documented a series of other cases involving pressure on the relatives of activists who are based abroad.

"Turkmenistan's international partners should speak up in support of Turkmen activists whose relatives have faced retaliation. They should insist that the authorities end this abuse and instead focus on the serious problems that activists are bringing to light," HRW deputy Europe and Central Asia director Rachel Denber said.

The leader of the Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan movement, Murad Gurbanov, who resides abroad, told RFE/RL earlier this week that exiled opposition groups had sent a letter to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is scheduled to visit Ashgabat later this year, to raise the issue of pressure imposed by Turkish immigration officials on Turkmen activists residing in Turkey.

"Turkmen authorities use Turkish immigration service to impose pressure on Turkmen nationals residing in Turkey. Turkish immigration officials demand from Turkmen nationals to stop opposition activities and protests against Turkmen government, threatening them with deportations," Gurbanov said.

He added that his organization also urged Erdogan, during his talks with Berdymukhammedov, to raise the issue of the renewal of expired national passports of Turkmen citizens living in Turkey.

Like his late predecessor, Berdymukhammedov, who has carefully constructed a personality cult to himself in the country, has relied on subsidized prices for basic goods and utilities to help maintain his grip on power.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service