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(Un)Constitutional Monument

Turkmenistan's new Constitution Monument in the capital Ashgabat
Turkmenistan's new Constitution Monument in the capital Ashgabat
Turkmenistan has a new monument honoring its constitution, but some connected to its unveiling ceremony consider it more a monument to the country's constitutional failings.

In 2008, a year after President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was officially elected as president of Turkmenistan, the country's constitution was updated to reflect a greater emphasis on citizens' rights.

According to Article 18, for example no one has the right to violate or limit human rights and freedoms.

Article 28 accords citizens of Turkmenistan freedom of belief, expression, and the right to independent information.

Citizens are guaranteed freedom of assembly under Article 29.

How then do these entries jive with the unveiling of a massive new Constitution Monument whose opening ceremony appears to have been an exercise in violating people's freedom to choose who, when, and what they assemble for?

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service has reported that the run-up to the unveiling ceremony for the 185-meter tall structure, which took place on Turkmenistan's Constitution Day, May 18, seriously conflicted with the spirit and letter of the basic law.

"I have been participating at the rehearsals of the opening ceremony of the Constitution Monument for 40 days," one student told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. "Students and staff workers from the state sector were forced to come here. Sometimes we, the students, were asked to come to the rehearsals at five o'clock in the morning and we had to stay 4-5 hours."

The student gave an account of harsh conditions, saying he witnessed incidents in which rehearsal participants fainted after standing under the hot sun with no water. On another occassion, he said, participants had to brave heavy rains for two hours.

"The Constitution Monument has been built, but I am wondering if we can enjoy the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution," the student concluded.

Ogulnaz, a 42-year-old teacher from Ashgabat who declined to use her real name, said the event was less about the constitution and more about padding the president's cult of personality. Ogulnaz, whose teaching duties include spending hours glorifying the president's accomplishments, participated in preparations for the monument unveiling for 10 days before the ceremony.

"Look at this Constitution Monument," she said of the structure, whose base is in the shape of an 8-point star and is surrounded by water fountains. "Yes, it is beautiful here.... but I don't think people enjoy all the freedoms that this monument symbolizes."
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