(New York) - Turkmen authorities should immediately revoke a new travel ban imposed on students bound for foreign private universities, Human Rights Watch said today. Turkmenistan should also end new, burdensome requirements for studying abroad that violate the rights to freedom of movement and to education, Human Rights Watch said.
"These arbitrary travel restrictions are disturbing new proof of how repressive Turkmenistan's government is," said Maria Lisitsyna, Turkmenistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Being able to travel abroad is a pretty basic human right."
Since late July 2009, Turkmen authorities have prevented hundreds of students from boarding planes and crossing land borders to depart for study abroad. The students were enrolled or planning to enroll at universities in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and the United States, among other countries. Authorities told the students that they did not have appropriate documents to leave the country.
The travel regulations have not been made public. According to information from several students, the Turkmen government began to impose the restrictions in late July, and by early August was referring to new regulations on foreign travel that it said had been "announced" on August 1.
The students and other sources said Ministry of Education officials told the students that under the new requirements they must present several documents to seek permission to travel abroad. These include an invitation from the university, a copy of its license, verification of its state-affiliation status, a copy of the contract between the student and the university (if the student is already enrolled), and a passport.
Ferghana.ru, a news website covering Central Asia, reported that when students began being blocked from leaving the country in late July, hundreds went to the National Institute of Education and the Migration Service to try to obtain the required stamps.
After weeks of uncertainty, the Turkmen government started to grant permission to leave the country, but only to those studying in state-run foreign universities, which reportedly had "state accreditation" and therefore met certain standards. While students attending state universities in countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States have been able to travel freely, other students said that they were told by officials that their university was not on an "approved list."
According to the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), a nongovernmental organization based in Vienna, the deputy minister of education told the parents of students of one private university in Central Asia on August 20 that Turkmenistan "does not need these professions" and that "from now on their children are prohibited from leaving the territory of Turkmenistan for any purpose."
The Vienna-based group and other sources reported that officials threatened to have students' parents jailed or fired from their jobs if the students attended non-approved universities.
Turkmenistan is party to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of movement and an individual's right to "leave any country, including his own," and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which guarantees everyone the right to education, including access to higher education.
"These new travel restrictions and the apparent ban on private higher education abroad are new additions to the extensive list of egregious repressive practices of the Turkmen government," said Lisitsyna. "The foreign travel ban on students should ring alarm bells for Turkmenistan's international partners about this government's disregard for its international obligations."
Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive and authoritarian countries in the world. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov came to power in December 2006 after the death of the self-declared president-for-life, Saparmurat Niazov. In the first year of his presidency, Berdymukhamedov took some measures to dismantle some of the most excessive, ruinous social policies of his predecessor, but these did not result in any genuine reforms affecting human rights. Hundreds of people, perhaps more, languish in Turkmen prisons following unfair trials on what appeared to be politically motivated charges. Draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and religion remain in place.
Because of the country's vast gas reserves, the United States and the European Union have actively engaged the Turkmen government. In July, the European Union formally approved a trade agreement with Turkmenistan that had been stalled by the European Parliament over human rights concerns since 2006. The European Parliament in April green-lighted the agreement as "a potential lever to strengthen the reform process in Turkmenistan."
"Too often, Turkmenistan's partners give the government undeserved credit for announcing reforms without following up to see if they are actually carried out," said Lisitsyna. "They can start the kind of closer scrutiny they should be exercising by pressing Turkmenistan to reverse this harmful travel ban."