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Hide Your Pets

Hide Your Pets

Iran tortures and kills innocents. Neighbor Turkmenistan buries dogs and cats alive. In places well known and obscure, authoritarians are acting with impunity.

Jeffrey Gedmin

At the end of last week, the president of Turkmenistan, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, extended warm wishes to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi for Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of the month-long, dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan. Turkmenistan’s leader stressed the importance of tranquility, compassion, and moral integrity. 

The Iranian regime marked the occasion by raining down missiles and drones on Israel. Last week, Turkmenistan wrapped up its month-long campaign of killing dogs and cats in honor of the holy period. The two countries—working to deepen their relationship since Berdimuhamedov met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in June 2022—continue to generate stomach-turning examples of how twisted faith, perverted culture, and the modern totalitarian state meet to advance the most bizarre kinds of cruelty.

I wrote recently about the intensifying crackdown in Iran, where schoolgirls are poisoned, LGBT+ people are executed, the disabled are hanged, and women receive lashings for failing to meet the dress code. The human rights situation in Iran is dire. With Iran’s neighbor Turkmenistan, things are gruesome in different ways—and getting worse.

During the month of Ramadan in Turkmenistan, managers at public utility companies issue quotas, reports Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Turkmen service; employees are required to kill a certain number of dogs and cats by poisoning, starving, or beating the animals to death. Any dog or cat will do. If workers struggle to meet their quota, though, they need to destroy a pet from home. City officials enlist poor kids to help. Children get money to share poisoned bread and sausage with the animals. Consider the method merciful.

In one recent incident in the capital of Ashgabat, eighteen dogs and cats were beaten to death with iron rods in a park by a hospital. This grisly scene happened in plain view of horrified patients. Bystanders who photographed the madness had their phones confiscated, reports RFE/RL’s outlet Azatlyk, a lifeline for those adept and brave enough to access its content.

After the fact, dogs and cats get carted off to landfills where some animals, not yet expired and whining, are buried alive. It’s not just during Ramadan that these killing sprees take place. The run-ups to important state events also offer the occasion. 

Over the past decade and a half, some nations of Central Asia—albeit in fits and spurts—began to undertake reform. Things opened up for civil society and independent media. That’s being reversed now. Influence from Russia and China plays a role. Turkmenistan remains an extreme case. Today, Freedom House ranks the country as less free than North Korea.

Turkmenistan is a nation of 6.5 million people bordering Iran to the south, Kazakhstan to the northwest, Uzbekistan to the north, Afghanistan to the southeast, and the Caspian Sea to the west. It’s led by a ruler suspicious of any outside influence. In February, one Turkmen province banned foreign music at weddings.

“We know about Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. But we can’t access them,” a fruit seller in the Turkmen capital told Voice of America earlier this year. WhatsApp, Viber, Signal, and Telegram are all blocked. Young people use proxies to access social media. Much of the population is fed endless state television footage of President Berdimuhamedov attending sports events and planting trees in the desert. According to State Department human rights reports, the president controls all aspects of society. 

In Turkmenistan, detention is commonplace; torture, widespread. Prison cells are overcrowded and food shortages frequent. Jailers beat inmates’ kidneys with plastic bottles full of water so that bruises don’t show. There’s a practice known as sklonka that has prisoners forced to stand outside in the open sun or in the cold for hours. August daytime highs run around a hundred degrees Fahrenheit; winters can be bitter. There’s forced and child labor in Turkmenistan—thousands of teachers, health care workers, and young children pick cotton in brutal summer heat—and at least 162 enforced disappearances that have included two foreign ministers.

In February, municipal workers in Ashgabat began removing benches from apartment building courtyards to prevent people from congregating and socializing. Even that never happened in the darkest days of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist Romania. In the province of Turkmenbashi, there’s now a 9 pm curfew so “people can rest peacefully at night,” so the official line.

It’s hard to make the case for Turkmenistan in Western capitals. Plates are full. The country is remote and scarcely known. Still, the exceptionally abysmal state of human rights deserves our attention. And the savagery toward animals is jarring and revealing. 

It reminds one of how Saddam Hussein dumped some four hundred thousand barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf in January 1991. Polluting water and killing fish and birds of the sea was purposeless, noted Joshua Muravchik at the time, difficult to grasp except as an act of pure evil. Amnesty International says, “Turkmenistan has failed to take meaningful action to address climate change.” We’re still not very good at connecting dots.

Turkmenistan is a tiny but unbearably distressing front in the struggle for decency against rising authoritarianism and cruelest dictatorship. Guardrails in developed democracies are coming down. Dictators know no bounds, or shame. Today’s totalitarianism is surreal as ever. 

Four years ago, Turkmenistan’s then-President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov unveiled a 20-foot golden statue of an alabai dog in Ashgabat. The president designated the last Sunday of April as a national holiday dedicated to the handsome Central Asian breed. His son, Serdar, is chair of the Turkmen Alabai Association. Turkmenistan even once gave a puppy to Vladimir Putin for his birthday. 

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose. He’s a member of the RFE/RL board and a Senate-confirmed member of the International Broadcasting Advisory Board. Views expressed are the author’s alone.

Image: Stray dogs in Marrakech, Morocco. (Unsplash: Anoir Chafik)

AsiaDemocracyAuthoritarianismPolitical PhilosophyU.S. Foreign Policy