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Turkmenistan pursues opposition figures living abroad

Two recent human rights cases highlight new efforts to silence voices critical of the authoritarian president Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov

The government of Turkmenistan is cracking down on opposition activists living abroad in a new push to stifle dissenting voices critical of president Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov.

A Moscow-based human rights group, Memorial, has highlighted the case of a Turkmen man known for his public criticism of the Turkmen government who is currently being held in Russia. Memorial said Rozgeldy Choliev, 27 was held on March 2 by Russian border officials at a Moscow airport after arriving from Istanbul. 

Choliev, who published a series of videos criticizing Turkmenistan’s regime on Facebook in 2020, was a student at Karachay-Cherkessia university in Russia — he said he was expelled last September because of his activism and claimed he was visited by officials of the FSB, Russia’s main domestic intelligence service. 

Despite the fact that Choliev was in possession of a valid Russian visa, border officials told him that he could not enter the country due to Covid-19 restrictions and would be sent back to Turkey. They stopped when Choliev said he was seeking political asylum and that human rights organizations were aware of his situation. 

While Choliev is not officially wanted in either Russia or Turkmenistan, Russian authorities told him they would invite officials from the Turkmen Consulate to “decide your situation.” According to Memorial, Russian authorities have yet to give him access to migration officials to apply for asylum. Back in Turkmenistan, his family has also been intimidated and threatened.

In an email interview, Vitaly Ponomarev, the director of Memorial’s Central Asian program, said that Turkmen opposition activists often face threats from president Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov’s government. Last October, Dursultan Taganova, a 29-year-old Turkmen migrant worker and activist living in Turkey, made headlines when she spent some three months in a deportation facility after being detained at a protest outside of the Turkmen Consulate in Istanbul. Taganova was released on October 12 after a group of human rights groups called on Turkey not to send her back to Turkmenistan. 

Ponomarev told me that the Turkmen authorities are concerned that migrants activists could create political instability within Turkmenistan. “The authorities fear that the ‘virus of dissent’ among migrants could create political problems within the country. Especially against the background of a serious crisis in the local economy,” he wrote.

Turkmenistan scored 2/100 in a new report by Freedom House, an organization that ranks political freedoms around the world.

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