Turkmenistan's President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is seen disembarking from a plane.

(Berlin) – President Heinz Fischer of Austria should urge President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan to address serious human rights problems in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. Berdymukhamedov is scheduled to meet Dr. Fischer in Vienna on May 12, 2015, to discuss a range of bilateral issues.

Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, Human Rights Watch said. In a video issued in November 2014, Human Rights Watch said that dozens of people have been forcibly disappeared in Turkmenistan, some for more than a decade. These individuals were initially taken into detention, but neither their families nor anyone else has had any contact whatsoever with them for years, or been informed of their whereabouts or fate.

“This is a rare opportunity for Austria to directly raise with Berdymukhamedov issues that no one in his country dares to raise,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Fischer should not miss this chance to urge Turkmenistan’s president to clarify the fate and whereabouts of dozens of people arrested in the early 2000’s who have been forcibly disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prison system.”

Families of the disappeared have had no official information about the fate, whereabouts, or health of their loved ones since their arrest and trial. The international Prove They Are Alive! campaign, initiated by human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, has documented how, in a form of collective punishment, the authorities have arrested the relatives of several of the disappeared prisoners, had them fired from jobs, confiscated their property, or denied them permission to travel abroad.

Enforced disappearances constitute one of the most grave human rights violations, and are strictly prohibited in all circumstances. The victims of enforced disappearances include not only those forcibly disappeared, but also their families and loved ones who are subjected to anguish not knowing the fate of the disappeared. In certain contexts, enforced disappearances can also amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. The fate of those forcibly disappeared in detention should be immediately clarified and they should be released.

“Austria should make clear to Turkmenistan that closer bilateral relations requires an immediate end to enforced disappearances and answers for the families of Turkmenistan’s disappeared,” Denber said.