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Latest update : 2017-10-20

The Dictator's Games: A rare look inside Turkmenistan

As Turkmenistan hosted the Asian Games in the capital Ashgabat, our reporter managed to obtain a visa to cover the event. He brings us a rare look inside one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.

Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most isolated and secretive regimes. Its president, Gurmanguly Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist who adores sport, has ruled the country with an iron fist for more than 10 years.

In February, the “beloved” leader – who has set up a personality cult on a par with that of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – was re-elected with almost 98% of the vote and with a 97% turnout. The country, rich in natural resources, is ranked 178th by Reporters Without Borders for press freedom, just ahead of Eritrea and North Korea. Access to the internet and independent media is severely restricted.

With Turkmenistan’s regime hosting the fifth edition of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games from September 17 to 27 in the capital Ashgabat, we managed to obtain a journalist visa – normally an impossible feat. Several other Western media outlets were turned back at the last moment.

Largely arid but rich in gas, the former Soviet republic spent more than $5 billion on event to showcase the regime and demonstrate “what the country is capable of”.

Chaperoned by two guides responsible for our "safety", we crisscrossed Ashgabat, known as the "white city", with its huge spotless boulevards and its dozens of Persian-Palladian monuments in gold and white marble. The face of President Berdymukhammedov is everywhere: in taxis, buses, shops, museums and on a 21-metre-high gold statue.

With the help of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – a US-funded radio station that broadcasts in Turkmen from Prague with the help of a few brave journalists – and via encrypted messaging, we were able to converse with the few human rights activists who are not languishing in jail.

Two grandmothers aged 62 and 67, both opposition journalists who have received death threats, gave us a different version of "Inspiring Ashgabat". They told us of homes razed for the Asian games without compensation, water supplies being cut, unemployment and repression: The daily life of the people of Turkmenistan seems far removed from the image that the regime hopes to project.

[Drone footage courtesy of Human Rights Watch].

By Axel COSSÉ

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