The Turkmen president apparently skids round the flaming pit in a rally car.
CNN  — 

Turkmenistan’s repressive president is alive, well and has been driving stunts around a flaming pit nicknamed the “Gateway to Hell,” according to recently released footage following rumors that he had died.

In July, rumors swirled about the health of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 62, who had disappeared from public view for several weeks.

That speculation was then reported in Russian media after a little-known analyst told a Moscow radio station that the death was confirmed to him by businessmen in Turkmenistan “who have acquaintances in the security services,” according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The Central Asian country’s embassy in Russia denied the reports to the Russian state news agency TASS, calling the rumors an “absolute hoax.”

Berdymukhamedov, who regularly stars in state media broadcasts, reappeared on television screens later that month, in a broadcast showing him reviewing pictures of bus shelters. 

On Sunday, Turkmenistan state broadcaster Watan Habarlary provided more detail on the leader’s recent activities. It is not known when the footage was filmed.

In a 25-minute report, Berdymukhamedov rides a horse, composes music and appears to score three strikes in a bowling game to a round of applause from aides wearing matching tracksuits.

He also seemingly races through the Karakum Desert in a rally car before driving in circles and skidding around the famous Darvaza Crater.

While there’s no concrete record of exactly how it came into being, the fiery crater is said to have formed in 1971 when Soviet geologists looking for oil realized they’d stumbled across a cavern of natural gas. They set it alight to avoid the spread of methane.

Berdymukhamedov on a stallion in celebrations for the Day of the Horse in April 2018.

Human rights concerns

Part of the Soviet Union until late 1991, the oil and gas-rich country has been run by Berdymukhamedov since the 2006 death of his equally authoritarian predecessor.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses Berdymukhamedov – commonly referred to as Arkadag, or protector – and his associates of controlling all aspects of public life.

Foreign media outlets have little access to the country; religious and political expression are “brutally punished” by the government; and no independent monitoring groups are allowed in the country, HRW wrote.

Its record has seen Turkmenistan hit the bottom of a number of human rights indexes, including the World Press Freedom Index and Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.