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Turkmen Exit Visas Replaced By Secret Police Blacklist

Has Turkmenistan become more free under its new president?
Has Turkmenistan become more free under its new president?
Jennet Gylychdurdyeva was diagnosed with a serious gynecological disease, and doctors in Ashgabat's Oncology Center advised her last summer to undergo surgery to prevent the development of ovarian cancer.

After failing to find a clinic in Ashgabat that would treat her, Gylychdurdyeva decided to fly to Moscow for the operation she needed to save her life.

She got a visa, bought a ticket, and boarded the plane at Ashgabat airport -- only to find out that she has long been on the security services' blacklist of people banned from leaving Turkmenistan.

"Migration service officers told me, 'You have problems and you cannot leave Turkmenistan.' I asked them what kind of problem I had and they told me I have problems with the [security] committee," she says.

"I told them if I had problems with the committee why should I only find out about it at the airport before my flight? If there were problems, why didn't I know about them? Why has the committee never said anything to me about it?"

Gylychdurdyeva was told to go the National Security Ministry to find out why she was on its blacklist.

But Gylychdurdyeva says she was too afraid to go to the ministry, because "many people who went there have never come out." Instead she decided to write a letter to the authorities, pleading with them to let her go for medical treatment.

'Stopping All Criticism'

Gylychdurdyeva suspects she was blacklisted by the authorities because of her father's work as a correspondent for RFE/RL.

Like Gylychdurdyeva, hundreds of other Turkmen -- family members or relatives of journalists, rights activists, opposition supporters, and jailed officials -- have only found out at Ashgabat airport that they are on the special list of the National Security Ministry.

Rights defenders, such as Amnesty International, say the targeting of relatives is widely used by Turkmen authorities to "put pressure on exiled opposition politicians in an attempt to stop those in exile from criticizing government policies and speaking out about human rights abuses in Turkmenistan."

It was a common practice by late President Saparmurat Niyazov and apparently remains intact under his predecessor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who has promised to allow greater freedom to his people.

Under Niyazov, the blacklist of people barred from traveling abroad reportedly contained many thousands of names, including political opponents, rights activists, and members of religious minority groups, as well as scores of others who had nothing to do with politics.

The blacklist has reportedly been reduced since Berdymukhammedov came to power in 2007. For instance, relatives of those who have been jailed for financial crimes have allegedly been removed from the list.

But according to Amnesty International, many new names have even been added to the list in the past year.

Like Gylychdurdyeva, most of the blacklisted people only find out at the Ashgabat airport that their names have been registered by the National Security Ministry. After being removed from flights they are not reimbursed for the cost of their ticket or visa expenses.

Owez Annaev, a Turkmen citizen living in Moscow, came to visit his family in Ashgabat in early June, planning to stay for a week. But Annaev was not allowed to return to Moscow. Officials have reportedly told Annaev his name was on the blacklist because he is married to the sister of an exiled opposition leader.

"I came back to Turkmenistan because I trusted the reports about positive changes in the country," Annaev says. "But it was a mistake. I hadn't seen my children and my wife for more than a year."

Those who are taken off flights send letters to Turkmenistan's Migration Service and other governmental bodies to review their cases. They usually wait for months -- even years -- to get a response from the authorities.

Gylychdurdyeva, however, cannot afford to wait too long. The trip to Moscow is for her, quite possibly a question of life and death.

Turkmen authorities, however, have taken more than a year to respond to Gylychdurdyeva, who continues to wait for an answer to her urgent letter.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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