Update September 22, 2015

On September 20, 2015, Turkmen authorities allowed Sofia Kyarizova and Elena Serebryannik to leave Turkmenistan. Kyarizova and Serebryannik joined their family in Moscow.

“The authorities did the right thing by finally letting Kyarizova and Serebryannik leave,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But let’s not forget that there are many more who can’t travel abroad because of the government’s unlawful and arbitrarily imposed travel bans.” 

(Berlin) – Turkmen authorities are unlawfully preventing a 14-year-old girl and her aunt from leaving the country to join her parents abroad, Human Rights Watch said today.

Authorities had twice in the past 10 months arbitrarily barred her father, the horse breeding expert Geldy Kyarizov, from leaving Turkmenistan, before allowing him to leave on September 14, 2015, for medical treatment. However, they made clear that his daughter, Sofia, and sister-in-law, had to stay behind in Turkmenistan as a “guarantee” of his return.

“We are profoundly relieved that Geldy Kyarizov is now in Russia and seeking the medical treatment he badly needs after his horrific ordeal in Turkmenistan,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But we are equally concerned about the fate of Sofia Kyarizova and Elena Serebryannik, whose freedom of movement and right to leave one’s country are being arbitrarily denied. Turkmen authorities should immediately allow them to leave the country.”

The EU, whose Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Turkmenistan awaits ratification, its member states, and the US government should urge Turkmen authorities to immediately allow Sofia Kyarizova and Elena Serebryannik to exercise their right to join their family abroad.

Kyarizov had attempted unsuccessfully to leave the country with his daughter and Serebryannik in August 2015 and December 2014. On both occasions, Turkmen officials told him that only he was under a travel ban but stamped the tickets of all three indicating that they had been prohibited from leaving.

On September 12, Turkmen security officials told Kyarizov he could leave the country, but that his daughter and sister-in-law had to stay until Kyarizov would return.

“This is certainly not the first time that Turkmen officials have tried to unlawfully coerce people by depriving their children and other family members of their rights,” Denber said. “But that doesn’t make it any less shocking.”

Kyarizov is an expert on the Akhal-Teke horse, a national symbol of Turkmenistan. He was arrested in 2002 and served five years in prison for abuse of office and negligence, charges the Turkmen government frequently levies against people who have fallen out of favor with the authorities. Authorities confiscated Kyarizov’s horse farm and other property in 2010. He suffered ill-treatment in prison, including severe psychological pressure, limited access to food, being forced to witness his cellmate being tortured, and threats to harm his wife and other family members.

The Turkmen government has imposed informal and arbitrary travel bans on various groups, including students leaving for study abroad, activists, and relatives of exiled dissidents. The travel bans blatantly violate the right to freedom of movement and the right to leave one’s country guaranteed under international human rights law.

The travel bans were among the issues the European Union discussed during its annual human rights dialogue with Turkmenistan in June. The EU is moving ahead with a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Turkmenistan, which is pending final ratification with the European Parliament. Although the agreement includes a human rights clause, none of the EU’s institutions or member countries have made any known efforts to secure concrete rights improvements as a condition for its conclusion.

“Arbitrarily barring people from foreign travel smacks of Soviet-era repression,” Denber said. “At the very least, the EU should make clear it will not ratify the partnership agreement until the Turkmen government stops this awful practice.”