Istanbul, Turkey – On a chilly afternoon in Istanbul’s Kadikoy neighbourhood, Nurmukhammed Annaev poked his head out of the window looking for fellow dissidents from Turkmenistan who had said they would attend a press conference. Dozens of Turkish police officers milled about below, blocking traffic on the street leading to the office.
“The police stopped me on my way here,” Annaev, 40, told Al Jazeera. “They wanted to know if our press conference was going to be outside because they say we are not allowed to do that. I think a lot of people who were supposed to attend probably saw the police and turned around.”
Annaev arranged a smartphone on a desk and sat down on a couch next to other Turkmen. On the wall behind them, next to a portrait of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was a large poster bearing the photos of dozens of people who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons, in some cases not heard from for decades.
Thousands of viewers logged on to watch Annaev online as he dialled in another exiled dissident from France, then spent an hour discussing what they say are the latest attempts by Turkmenistan’s government to silence critics abroad.
More than 200,000 Turkmenistan nationals hold residence permits in Turkey, according to official statistics, although rights activists say up to a million Turkmen are thought to live in Turkey – one of the few countries they can travel to without a visa.
Critics like Annaev, though, are increasingly worried that growing ties between Ankara and Ashgabat are threatening to put an end to the freedom they have found in Turkey to criticise their country’s government. They say hundreds of Turkmen, most accused of overstaying visas because they are unable to renew passports, have been rounded up by Turkish immigration authorities over the last few months and face deportation.
The most well known among them, a handful of activists like Annaev who speak out on TikTok, YouTube, and other social media platforms, say they have been attacked on Istanbul’s streets by men they believe are working for Ashgabat.
“Turkmenistan not only tries to shut down any public discontent inside the country but is now trying to do so outside the country as well,” Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber told Al Jazeera. “Because Turkey has one of the most prominent concentrations of Turkmen abroad, the efforts by the Turkmen government to shut down any kind of public discussions and dissident groups outside the country has been focusing on Turkey.”
The alleged crackdown by Turkish immigration authorities comes in advance of a Turkic Council summit on Friday in Istanbul where Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow will join other Central Asian heads of state, and is expected to agree to become an observer member of the organisation which seeks to build economic and political ties in the region.
Turkey is already one of Turkmenistan’s largest trade partners – some 600 Turkish companies, from tradesmen to construction firms, operate in the country – and Ankara is keen to buy natural gas from Ashgabat.
In a statement released before the summit, 33 human rights organisations – including Turkish groups, Human Rights Watch, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – have called on Turkey to stop detentions and deportation attempts against Turkmenistan nationals in the country.
“There has been an increasing number of reports of arbitrary detention of Turkmen civil activists by the Turkish police, their placement in deportation facilities and threats of their immediate deportation to Turkmenistan,” the statement said. “We hope that Turkey will abide by the rule of law and will not, in order to advance geopolitical interests, pressure Turkmen activists and cover up for those violating the law on its territory, at the behest of illegal demands of Turkmen authorities.”
Yasin Aktay, a senior adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told Al Jazeera that Turkey’s migration policies are in line with international human rights law. He said while Turkey takes measures against irregular migration, no one is deported to a country where they are at risk – including Turkmenistan.
“There is no systematic deportation for anybody,” Aktay said. “Nobody is being deported just because their passport expired if they prove they are at risk.”
While most of the more than four million refugees hosted by Turkey are Syrians, hundreds of thousands of other at-risk people are from other countries – including about 2,500 Turkmen asylum seekers, according to the UNHCR.
US-based democracy research group Freedom House regularly places Turkmenistan alongside North Korea as one of the most politically closed countries in the world.
Berdimuhamedow, who took power after his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006, heads a state where corruption is systemic, and the legal code is subject to the shifting day-to-day whims of the president. Chronic mismanagement has meant that, despite having some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world, the country’s estimated five million residents face rampant inflation and a faltering economy.
While some of Niyazov’s most whimsical policies were ended by Berdimuhamedow – the names of the months were changed for instance, and the president’s book was required school reading – other policies have continued. A dislike of dark colours, for instance, has led to Berdimuhamedow virtually banning all automobiles except those painted white.
A near-total control of information in the country has meant even the most obvious shortcomings of the state cannot be discussed publicly. While the state mandates an official exchange rate of 3.5 manats to the US dollar, a ubiquitous black market sells dollars for 10 times that rate. Ashgabat says the country has had zero COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, a claim global health experts have found unbelievable.
Photos shared online of long lines at stores selling subsidised bread, eggs, and other basics, have landed people in prison. While the country conducted a census in 2012, its results were never published, part of an effort critics say is meant to cover up a mass exodus that has seen at least two million Turkmen leave the country.
‘I never wanted to go abroad’
“I am just a normal citizen trying to help my family,” Annaev said. “I never wanted to go abroad, I like my country, I want my country to grow.”
Annaev says back home he was a small business owner, and over the years grew frustrated as his work was hindered by an often opaque and incomprehensible bureaucracy. He wrote letters to the government, to the Justice Ministry, to police, to prosecutors, that went unanswered.
In 2020, Annaev says he began travelling regularly to Dubai, then found himself stranded there when Turkmenistan suddenly stopped all flights to the country due to the pandemic. Ashgabat put new restrictions on international money transfers, limiting money sent to Turkmen abroad.
That is when he decided to start speaking out on social media, with his face hidden.
“I got angry with the government, I was thinking how long I will have to wait like this, and I decided to really explain to the public my own problem, and asking people to explain what I was doing wrong,” he said.
In January, Annaev moved to Turkey, where he looked for work and kept up his social media posts. Every night, thousands of people tuned in to his TikTok channel to debate who was to blame for the situation, and in April he decided to stop trying to hide his identity altogether.
“[Turkmenistan’s] government showed their true face in the pandemic. They were not helping their own citizens, they had no flights and the consulates were not communicating, just leaving us to die, but silently. So I said if I die, at least this way everybody will hear about it.”
In Turkey, Annaev found a whole community of Turkmen that feel abandoned by their government.
Ahmed Rahmanov, 47, has been living in Turkey since 2004.
Last September, Rahmanov’s passport expired, and the Turkmenistan diplomatic missions in Turkey said they would not renew it unless he returned home. Turkmenistan is one of the few countries in the world that will not grant new passports, or replace or extend expired passports, for its nationals outside the country.
“Before it expired I could get work permits, I could earn a living, I was working as a translator for tourism companies because I speak Russian,” he said. “But suddenly, I was left as an illegal person here. I was turned into an illegal person because my own country refused to give me a passport.”
Bayram Alaliyev says he and his family have been in Turkey since 2016, but their passports expired last year. During the lockdown, he worked as a pizza delivery man, and noticed how Turkmen in Istanbul were struggling to make ends meet, so he and others began delivering donated groceries to them as well, and talking about the issue on YouTube.
“Then the Turkmenistan authorities started calling my relatives back home,” he told Al Jazeera. “They called my parents, and my wife’s parents, [and] told them Bayram needs to stop making these videos, told them we have agents in Turkey who will kill him, they will throw his body into the sea and he will disappear.”
One day this year, he says he was called to appear at the Istanbul headquarters of the Turkish immigration authorities, where three police officers informed him he would be deported because they had learned through Interpol he was wanted in Turkmenistan for fraud.
“I told them, I have not been back there for nearly six years, how could I have committed fraud there? This was all just an excuse for Turkmenistan to get me back there,” he said.
Alaliyev spent three days in a police station, then several more in a deportation centre, pleading with authorities he would be killed if he was deported, until he says he was finally released without explanation.
Most wanted list
Many Turkmen exiles in Turkey have not remained silent, even though they say their activities are increasingly putting them at risk.
Dursoltan Taganova, 30, spent most of the pandemic on social media, questioning Turkmenistan’s narrative of having zero COVID cases, building an audience that often drew tens of thousands of viewers.
Last May, she and scores of activists staged a rare protest outside the Turkmenistan consulate in Istanbul, only to be detained by Turkish police. Taganova, whose passport had expired, says she was released months later after international rights groups called for her to be freed.
But activists say they also face the threat of attacks on the street.
On August 1, a small group, including Annaev, tried to protest at the consulate against the inability to renew Turkmen passports abroad, and found themselves being confronted by at least 15 men armed with brass knuckles and knives, who Annaev suspects were acting on behalf of the Turkmen government. Annaev and 10 other activists were arrested and threatened with deportation.
Mustafa Yaman, a lawyer representing 15 activists facing deportation, says police tried to charge them with interfering with diplomatic activities and damaging a diplomatic building. But he said the police told him the dissidents are on a list of 25 people wanted by Turkmenistan for other alleged crimes.
“There is no clear crime, but police have said they have a list of people, and if they find them they will deport them right away, because they are wanted for terrorism and other crimes in Turkmenistan,” Yaman told Al Jazeera.
“We have appealed the deportations and stopped them for now.”