ALMATY (Reuters) -- Turkmenistan has banned its citizens from attending foreign private universities, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said in a statement, urging the isolated Central Asian state to reverse the move.
Gas-rich Turkmenistan is largely closed to Western media. Human rights groups say the government in the former Soviet state clamps down on dissent and limits its citizens' access to information, a charge it denies.
"Since late July 2009, Turkmen authorities have prevented hundreds of students from boarding planes and crossing land borders to depart for study abroad," the New York-based group said in a statement late on August 31.
Students wishing to study at private universities were told they did not have the appropriate documents to leave the country, HRW said.
It said the students were enrolled or planning to enroll at universities in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and the United States, among other countries.
"These arbitrary travel restrictions are disturbing new proof of how repressive Turkmenistan's government is," HRW's Turkmenistan researcher Maria Lisitsyna said in the statement, adding that foreign travel is a "basic right."
HRW said Turkmenistan would let citizens go to foreign state-affiliated universities as these "meet certain standards."
Turkmen officials could not be reached for comment.
Turkmenistan became notorious for various restrictions and isolationist policies under late leader Saparmurat Niyazov who had run the country for 21 years as a personal fiefdom, banning gold teeth and renaming months in the year after his family.
His successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has reversed some of Niyazov's policies but, according to HRW, these measures "did not result in any genuine reforms affecting human rights."
HRW criticized the United States and the European Union for engaging with Turkmenistan without necessary scrutiny "because of the country's vast gas reserves."
The EU sees Turkmenistan as a potential supplier for the Nabucco pipeline designed to ease Europe's dependence on Russia.
"Too often, Turkmenistan's partners give the government undeserved credit for announcing reforms without following up to see if they are actually carried out," Lisitsyna said.
"They can start the kind of closer scrutiny they should be exercising by pressing Turkmenistan to reverse this harmful travel ban," she said.