We need to talk about Turkmenistan

Illustration of a large hole in the ground
Image caption Illustration by Newsbeat artist Ginevra Boni

It's one of the most secretive and isolated nations on Earth.

Two - or it could be three - spectators are said to have died at a football World Cup qualifier last month, when more than 10,000 people watched Turkmenistan play against Iran.

Reports from Turkmenistan suggest these were not fans keen to brave any weather to see the home team play.

Instead many were driven to the match by authorities at the "hottest time of the day", four hours before kick-off.

People don't protest. They are afraid, not just for themselves but also for their families

It's thought a man and a woman both died during the heatwave. Another man was reportedly taken to hospital.

Tukmenistan is in central Asia. To its west is the Caspian Sea and it is bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

Torture, human rights abuses and censorship are still widespread, according to human rights organisation Amnesty International.

Exit visas, where people have to have special permission to leave the country, were stopped in 2006. However it seems that those who are critical of Turkmenistan are still being denied the freedom to leave the country.

Giant gold statue of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on a horse

In May, Turkmenistan made world news when it erected a huge gold statue of its president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, riding a horse.

This is a country that has a history of idolising its political leaders.

In the 1990s Saparmurat Niyazov created a "cult of personality" around himself, introducing laws that seem bizarre to outsiders.

He renamed the month of January after himself and April after his mother.

Things Niyazov banned include ballet, gold teeth and recorded music.

He ordered a lake to be made in the middle of the desert and a ski resort on the foothills of the Iranian border, where there is no snow.

Running unopposed in elections and imprisoning many of his critics Niyazov was declared president for life in 1999, keeping control until his death in 2007.

Parade of people holding a photograph of the president

Since taking over, Berdymukhamedov is said to have made Turkmenistan more open.

He has also returned the days of the week to their original names and changed the national anthem to remove the many references to Niyazov.

But despite all these changes reports from Human Rights Watch suggest this leader still grants unlimited power to himself, his family and supporters.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

"My salary is barely enough to feed my family," said one Ashgabat resident to a BBC reporter who visited the country in December.

"So what if we have huge energy resources? Ordinary people don't gain much from that. They have even installed gas meters in our flats."

Gas and electricity used to be free, in a nation that is said to have one of the largest resources of natural gas in the world.

The massive crater, known as the doorway to hell, has been burning since 1971.

It was opened up by Soviet engineers who were expecting to find oil deposits.

Instead they found natural gas, which they thought it would be best to set fire to for safety reasons - expecting that it would burn away in a few weeks. It is still burning.

Massive crater with fire in the middle

The UK government says it has "significant concerns" about Turkmenistan, pointing out that the elections in December 2013 took place in a "strictly controlled political environment".

"The Turkmen government routinely blocked sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter," says a UK government report from March 2015, adding that fewer than one in 10 people in Turkmenistan has access to the internet.

Despite this, Western organisations and governments still court Turkmenistan, keen to access its energy reserves.

Rocket launching into the sky

The Foreign Office issues guidance for anyone thinking of going to Turkmenistan.

"Male homosexual activity is illegal, punishable by a custodial sentence. Homosexuality is still very much frowned upon socially," the government advises.

"The quality of medical care is poor... treatment may be unreliable or even unwise due to poorly trained staff, limited facilities and a lack of drugs and equipment."

It's rare for BBC journalists to be able to report from inside Turkmenistan but in 2007 one reporter found that many there remain fiercely loyal to their country.

One woman told the journalist that she never wanted to leave Turkmenistan.

"Look at our neighbours - in Afghanistan, there is chaos and bloodshed. Iran can get bombed any minute. Uzbekistan is so poor, people are fleeing.

"Here we have peace, we have stability and we know what will happen tomorrow."

Follow @BBCNewsbeat on Twitter, BBCNewsbeat on Instagram, Radio1Newsbeat on YouTube and you can now follow BBC_Newsbeat on Snapchat