(Berlin, May 20, 2014) – Turkmenistani authorities have barred the family of one of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders from traveling abroad, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee said today. The Turkmenistani government should immediately end its longstanding practice of banning government critics and their family members from foreign travel, the groups said.
On April 10, 2014, Turkmenistani authorities barred Ruslan Tukhbatullin from flying to Istanbul to visit his brother, Farid. Farid Tukhbatullin is the head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, one of the most prominent human rights groups working on Turkmenistan. He has lived in exile in Austria since 2003, after he was released from prison in Turkmenistan. He had been convicted of politically motivated charges and pressured by the authorities to leave the country.
“Preventing people from traveling abroad for no valid reason is a violation of freedom of movement and a relic of Soviet-era repression,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “By banning Ruslan Tukhbatullin from traveling, Turkmenistani authorities are obviously trying to retaliate against his brother for his human rights work.”
On April 10, Ruslan Tukhbatullin was to fly from Ashgabat to Istanbul with his daughter. Border police cleared his daughter, but after examining Tukhbatullin’s passport, they told him he was not allowed to leave the country, and that he and his 9-year-old son are on a list of people banned from foreign travel. The border police told him he would have to ask the Migration Service for an explanation. He wrote to the State Migration Service on April 21 asking for an explanation but has not received a reply.
It is not the first time Turkmenistani authorities have targeted Farid Tukhbatullin’s family and friends to pressure him to stop his human rights work. In 2010, authorities began questioning former classmates and teachers of Tukhbatullin’s sons, who also live in exile. At least three were threatened with treason charges if they maintained ties with the family. In 2005, Ruslan Tukhbatullin, an army officer, was pressured into resigning his military post and job with the draft board, after being warned that he would be dismissed unless his brother “kept his head down.”
Toward the end of April, the local military draft board, where Ruslan Tukhbatullin had worked, summoned him to “re-inspect” his documents on file about his work.
“The timing of this draft board’s summons clearly suggests they are looking for bogus reasons to retroactively justify the authorities’ decision to ban him from foreign travel,” Denber said.
The Turkmenistani government uses an informal and arbitrary system of travel bans to routinely restrict foreign travel for people associated with the political opposition, relatives of exiled dissidents, and the like, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said. While a handful of people previously banned from foreign travel were permitted to travel abroad in 2013, others were not, including family members of political prisoners. Students studying abroad also frequently face obstacles leaving Turkmenistan trying to return to their studies.
“The authorities of Turkmenistan continue to impose arbitrary and informal limits on the freedom of movement despite its international human rights obligations, said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia programme director at Amnesty International. “The Turkmenistani government can and should do the right thing, and let Ruslan Tukhbatullin and his family travel freely abroad.”