Students die after participation in patriotic day rehearsal

Two Turkmen university students are said to have died after being forced to take part in rehearsals for a patriotic holiday celebration in the Turkmenistan capital Ashgabat.

The rehearsals for Turkmenistan’s Neutrality Day – an annual event marked on 15 December that coincides with Student Youth Day – were held in a sports stadium last month. Students were told to wear light clothing on an unseasonably cold day.

Dozens of students fell sick and two – from a medical university and the State Architectural Institute – were hospitalised with pneumonia. They subsequently died, according to a report on the opposition website, Chronicles of Turkmenistan.

In the wake of the deaths Neutrality Day celebrations – one of dozens of mandatory displays of public patriotism in the secretive former Soviet republic every year – are said to have been cancelled, although the authorities have made no comment on the deaths, which have been blamed on the students seeking medical help too late.

There have been other reports in the past of Turkmens falling ill after being forced to participate in mass public events.

In the winter of 2010 people from Dashoguz, a northern provincial town, were forced to stand for hours to greet a presidential motorcade. Dozens were later hospitalised, suffering from the effects of the cold.

Turkmenistan is probably the most reticent and least democratic of Central Asia’s ex-Soviet republics.

The country is run under a single-party system, and the country’s leader is known as the Turkmenbashi (leader or father of the Turkmens), which from independence in 1991 until his death on 21 December 2006 was president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov. He was succeeded by dentist and former health minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.