Host countries have their ways of prepping for major international sporting events. Activists say Turkmenistan has defined its style: wiping entire residential neighborhoods off the map.
Amnesty International found in a report this week that the Central Asian country has forcibly evicted more than 50,000 people from their homes near the capital, Ashgabat, and razed their houses to the ground. In one area alone, officials have demolished more than 10,000 buildings, the rights watchdog says.
These actions are reportedly in preparation for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, which Turkmenistan will host for the first time.
Mass evictions and other dubious practices have become an unfortunate staple of world sports events. Brazil has taken flak for kicking poor residents, including indigenous communities, out of their homes ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Media and activists have linked Qatar's numerous migrant deaths to its 2022 World Cup preparations.
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Meanwhile, for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia pursued construction at huge environmental and economic costs.
But the evictions and demolitions in Turkmenistan, home to one of the world’s most closed and repressive political regimes, are also a symptom of a much greater illness.
“Sadly, intimidation and repression is a daily fact of life in Turkmenistan,” Denis Krivosheev, deputy program director for Europe and Central Asia for Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Ruled with an iron fist by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the former Soviet republic has a long history of controlling “nearly all aspects of the lives of its residents,” Amnesty says.
It’s also great at shielding itself from much of the rest of the world. In fact, the watchdog had to rely partly on satellite imagery of the destruction to corroborate its account:
Somewhat like with North Korea's ruler, a bizarre personality cult follows the regime in Turkmenistan, which built a gleaming showcase capital of white marble and gold.
But that also means there’s little room for the ragtag villages that spoil the nice view — at least as far as officials there are concerned. That might be why similar evictions have been going on for years, though on a smaller scale.
Researchers say “the vast majority” of victims have received neither compensation nor alternative housing from the government — only a few days’ notice ahead of the evictions, at best.
“We are told by local authorities that our houses are built illegally, on a plot of land that authorities say is designated for growing a garden, not to build houses,” one resident of an affected neighborhood told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty earlier this year.
“But an entire generation has grown up on this land [and] legality hasn’t been an issue so far.”
Amnesty International has called on the Turkmen government to immediately stop the evictions and has appealed to the international community to raise concerns over potential human rights abuses there.
Officials have not publicly commented on the allegations. The Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games appear to be a big deal for the oil-rich country, which is reportedly spending some $5 billion on the event.
Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk is based in Kyiv, Ukraine.