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This Central Asian country will reportedly arrest you for saying the word "coronavirus"

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As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases nears 900,000 worldwide, one Central Asian country claims it doesn't have a single positive diagnosis. And while Turkmenistan has reportedly attacked and tortured whistleblowers for years, police are now apparently arresting anyone who even says the word "coronavirus" in public. 

The notoriously secretive Turkmen government, led by president and "Father Protector" Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow since 2007, is dealing with the pandemic by essentially pretending it doesn't exist, according to the nonprofit organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF). 

The Turkmenistan Chronicles, which RSF calls "one of the few sources of independent news, whose site is blocked within the country," said the word can no longer be found in health brochures given to schools, hospitals and workplaces. Heavily restricted state media are avoiding reports about the virus, depriving citizens of access to information on the growing pandemic

Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Ashgabat on October 11, 2019. ALEXEY DRUZHININSPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Citing journalists reporting from the capital, Ashgabat, for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RSF said that anyone in the country could be arrested by police for wearing a face mask or talking about coronavirus at, say, a bus stop or supermarket. 

Turkmenistan is ranked last in RSF's World Press Freedom Index — behind North Korea. The country frequently punishes people who speak out against the government, arresting and torturing journalists, RSF said. 

"The Turkmen authorities have lived up to their reputation by adopting this extreme method for eradicating all information about the coronavirus," said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. "This denial of information not only endangers the Turkmen citizens most at risk but also reinforces the authoritarianism imposed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. We urge the international community to react and to take him to task for his systematic human rights violations."

Turkmenistan continues to claim it has no cases of the virus, which has been confirmed in virtually every other country on Earth. With a population of just under 6 million people, Turkmenistan directly borders Iran — one of the global hotspots with more than 47,000 confirmed cases and over 3,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University

While it has banned the word coronavirus, the Turkmenistan government has reportedly implemented some social distancing guidelines, including closing restaurants, gyms and sporting events, and extending school holidays by two weeks. The country closed its borders to travelers in early February, taking aggressive action early on in the pandemic, and suspended the movement of cargo traffic Wednesday, Reuters reports

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According to the Turkmenistan Chronicles, public spaces such as banks and train stations are being constantly disinfected, and some are holding temperature checks and dispensing hand sanitizer. 

Berdimuhamedow also spoke with Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the president of Uzbekistan, last week, and according to the Uzbek government, the virus was discussed. 

"Actual aspects of bilateral cooperation were discussed, including the priority measures taken in countries to prevent the spread of coronavirus infection," the government of Uzbekistan said in a press release. "The work of the relevant departments and organizations on providing mutual practical assistance and monitoring the development of the epidemiological situation, especially in the border areas, was noted with satisfaction."

But on the Turkmenistan government's website, there is no mention of COVID-19 in its press release for the phone call. The government site's homepage also lacks any content related to the virus. 

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