Turkmenistan : Exit bans prohibit the sick from leaving the country for medical treatment | Den norske Helsingforskomité

Exit ban prohibits the sick from leaving the country for medical treatment

Exit ban prohibits the sick from leaving the country for medical treatment

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee is deeply concerned over the continued reports of travel bans imposed on several groups of citizens of Turkmenistan, prohibiting them from leaving their home country.

For years, the international human rights community has brought up individual cases of political dissidents and civil activists who have been denied the right to leave Turkmenistan. Ranking as one of the most repressive states in the world, Turkmen authorities do not permit any form of independent journalistic or political activity. Beyond imprisonment, a common way to silence criticism is by placing pressure on the relatives of those who have fallen in disfavor.  Frequently, family members of critics are included on so-called “blacklists” of people who are not permitted to travel abroad.

While official documents indicating the reason for such travel bans are never made public, some activists have been able to procure formal confirmation of their names having been included on these lists. One example is civil society activist Umida Jumabaeva, who was stopped by Turkmen border guards when attempting to cross the land border to Kazakhstan in 2011. Having actively participated in the campaign to free another human rights activist, Andrey Zatoka, in 2009, Jumabaeva was eventually presented with a letter from the Prosecutor General’s office confirming that she is not permitted to leave Turkmenistan. No specific reason as to why was given.

Another group facing collective bans on travel are students who have been admitted to universities abroad, particularly educational institutions in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine which are considered by Turkmen authorities to be the countries of the former Soviet Union where the well-developed democracy movement may have an unfortunate influence on young Turkmen citizens.

In 2009, a large group of Turkmen students set to travel to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in an exchange program for undergraduates at the American University in Central Asia (AUCA), were removed from the airplane while awaiting departure at Ashgabat International Airport. The incident drew considerable international attention.

Reports from Turkmenistan also indicate that students enrolled at universities inside the country are discouraged from leaving the country.Travels abroad for holidays or medical treatment may lead to exclusion from further studies.

Similary, teachers in grammar schools have been forbidden to travel abroad. In the northeastern Lebap Province, near the Uzbekistan border, grammar school teachers have been fired from work after border service officials found foreign visas in their passports.

Deplorable as it may be, that a regime of this nature imposes travel bans on civil society activists and young students is perhaps to be expected. However, recent reports from inside Turkmenistan indicate that a less obvious group is also being targeted. Due to the poor level of medical care in Turkmenistan, many who suffer serious illnesses are forced to leave on shorter or longer stays abroad to seek professional medical treatment. The main destinations for Turkmen citizens in need of surgery or other forms of treatment are Russia, Iran and Turkey.

However, since leaving Turkmenistan in search of foreign medical specialists can be considered an indirect form of criticism of the state of the country’s national medical facilities, many are stopped at border crossings and airports when the purpose of their journey becomes clear. Sources in Turkmenistan have told the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that many are turned back for this reason, and have not been able to get the treatment they need. The state of Turkmen health care drew international attention in 2010 when Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) published a scathing report on Turkmenistan’s health system. MSF closed their program in Turkmenistan in December 2009, after ten years of witnessing what the organization described as “systematic denial and manipulation”.

The blacklist of individuals who are not permitted to leave Turkmenistan can be accessed by the Border Service through the computer system of the Migration Service. Beyond listing convicted criminals, as do similar computer systems in Europe, the database also includes the names of suspected political dissidents and their family members

It is assumed that several government organs may enter individual names into the system, including representatives of the Committee for National Security, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Tax Department and others. High-ranking positions in the Migration Service are often held by former officers of the Committee for National Security.

Collective travel bans on particular groups, such as students and those seeking medical assistance abroad, are  thought to be implemented on a day-to-day basis by border guards who are given orders to target travelers who fit this particular description.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee remains deeply concerned about the lack of respect for fundamental human rights in Turkmenistan, and encourages diplomatic staff and those conducting business in the country to continuously raise this and other topics of concern with the authorities.