Turkmenistan wants to use the just-opened 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) to buff its image and promote itself as a regional sports hub. But it’s off to a rather jarring start.
While Turkmen officials proudly point visitors to brand new infrastructure secured by lavish spending in association with the hosting of AIMAG - a new giant falcon-shaped airport alone accounted for $2.5bn, while there is also a new sports complex that can hold 45,000 spectators, a 6,000-seat indoor cycling track, an indoor tennis court and a water-sports complex as well as a 5-km circular monorail system for carrying visitors around the venue – human rights campaigners have been pointing to residents “forcibly evicted” from selected parts of the capital Ashgabat to make way for the needs of the 10-day spectacle.
The country’s tourism ministry has said the Turkmen expect "around 150,000 spectators from around the world" to attend the games, a welcome source of revenue for the cash-strapped nation, although the country's complicated visa processes raise doubts about Turkmenistan’s ability to attract as many visitors to the games as it hopes to. Expected to be the second largest sporting event in Central Asia, AIMAG will see 5,500 athletes from 62 countries contesting 21 disciplines.
But the story of the residents campaigners say were ordered to leave their homes “without adequate compensation” – according to accounts submitted to the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) in Vienna and New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) – does not exactly paint a welcoming picture of Turkmenistan, a tightly controlled Central Asian country often compared to North Korea for its remoteness and autocratic tendencies.
The rights groups said the authorities "systematically demolished extensions and additions homeowners have made to their properties, without allowing them to appeal the demolition decisions to a court”. By demolishing homes the Turkmen government aimed to turn Ashgabat into a "white marble city" ahead of the competition. TIHR and HRW urged the Turkmen government to provide proper compensation for evictions and demolitions.
"The games will last all of 10 days, but people left with inadequate or no housing will suffer for years to come unless they are properly compensated," TIHR's executive director, Farid Tuhbatillin, said.
Turkmen authorities banned sales of alcohol in Ashgabat ahead of the games, although the ban apparently only applies to Turkmen citizens. Military and law enforcement agencies were placed on high alert for the August 17-September 27 period.
Ahead of the event, authorities also banned former inmates from attending the games' venues and tried to clear the city of child beggars as well as stray dogs and cats.