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International Games Open In Ashgabat

Men walk toward the Olympic Stadium, with the 40.05-meter-tall horse head sculpture seen on top of the venue, in Ashgabat last month.
Men walk toward the Olympic Stadium, with the 40.05-meter-tall horse head sculpture seen on top of the venue, in Ashgabat last month.

The opening ceremony of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) has started in Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat.

The ceremony is to be attended by a number of heads of state and government, including the presidents of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who exercises considerable control over virtually all aspects of society in the gas-rich former Soviet republic, appears to want to use the 11-day AIMAG to cast Turkmenistan as a regional success story and sports hub.

But human rights groups have raised concern over rights abuses in the run-up of the competition, including "massive housing violations" in Ashgabat by Turkmen authorities and their continued clampdown on independent voices.

Turkmenistan usually shuns outside visitors but for the AIMAG expects tens of thousands of foreigners to visit.

According to organizers, some 5,500 athletes from 62 countries will be contesting in 21 disciplines -- including tennis, ju-jitsu, cycling track, weightlifting, and taekwondo -- to September 27, making it Asia's second-largest sporting event.

The youngest athlete to participate was said to be a 13-year-old Pakistani swimmer, Jahan Ara Nabi.

The Turkmen government has spent billions of dollars preparing for the games -- the most prominent international event ever held in independent Turkmenistan -- including some $2.5 billion on a mammoth new airport built in the shape of a falcon in flight.

It also built an Olympic Complex located on 150 hectares on the outskirts of the capital and numerous state-of-the-art sporting facilities -- including the Olympic Stadium capable of holding 45,000 fans, a 6,000-seat indoor cycling track, a water-sports complex, an indoor tennis court -- complete with a circular 5-kilometer monorail system to carry athletes, officials, and fans around the complex.

Turkmen officials have said they were planning to bid for hosting other major sports events, including the Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, human rights groups have said homeowners and residents in Ashgabat have had to endure "massive housing violations" ahead of the competition.

The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) in Vienna and the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on September 4 that the Turkmen government had "forcibly evicted" homeowners in Ashgabat and demolished their homes "without adequate compensation" in preparation for the games.

They said that Turkmen authorities had also "systematically demolished extensions and additions homeowners have made to their properties, without allowing them to appeal the demolition decisions to a court," in order to "standardize the city’s appearance."

The two human rights watchdogs have also called on the Olympic Council of Asia, as the organizer of the AIMAG, to remind Turkmenistan of its rights obligations.

The Olympic Council of Asia "should urge the Turkmen government to ensure that all journalists can do their work without fear of retaliation ahead of, during, and after the games," an August 8 statement said.

The call came after a correspondent for RFE/RL in Turkmenistan was threatened with death by a man who identified himself as a police officer.

While en route to take photos documenting Turkmenistan's Day of Bicycles on July 29, Soltan Achilova said the man warned her against taking photos or she would be "finished."

The previous week Achilova, 68, said a man tried to steal her phone as she was about to take a picture. The two recent attacks follow several incidents of harassment against Achilova in November 2016.

In an effort to improve the country's image when foreigners start arriving to compete in, or attend, AIMAG, Turkmen authorities have banned the sale of alcohol in Ashgabat, restricted the movement of residents of the provinces to the capital, ordered former inmates to stay away from the games' venues, and tried to clear the city of stray dogs and cats as well as child beggars.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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