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Next week’s United Nations General Assembly will feature dozens of heads of state and a host of urgent crises in desperate need of resolution. Why should anyone care that the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, will be among the visiting leaders? Because it’s a rare opportunity to possibly change someone’s life, maybe even a lot of people’s lives.

Turkmenistan is one of the least-known of the former Soviet republics. It presides over some of the world’s largest gas reserves but is one of the most closed, repressive, and isolated countries. The government tolerates no dissent. There’s no free media, no independent groups. The government is forcibly dismantling satellite dishes, people’s last link to independent information.

President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov at an official visit to the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva on October 9, 2012. © 2012 Reuters

The government has denied scores of public figures imprisoned since the late 1990s any contact whatsoever with their families. No letters, visits, packages. Families have no idea where their loved ones are, or whether they’re even dead or alive.

The government bans family members of exiled dissidents or people it considers disloyal from foreign travel. In an exception, this month, following an international outcry, Turkmen authorities allowed Geldy Kyarizov, a horse breeder, to leave for medical treatment. Kyarizov had spent almost five years in prison on trumped-up charges. It took years for the government to let him leave. After initially refusing, they let his daughter leave a week later.

Another exiled dissident, Pirimkuli Tanrykuliev, hasn’t seen his daughter in 14 years. In July, the last time she tried to travel abroad with her two daughters, ages 3 and 11, officials told them they were barred from leaving for life.

In addition to letting the Kyarizovs leave, the government sent a delegation this year to the annual human rights conference of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe for the first time in many years. Maybe that’s because it’s trying hard to impress the United States and European Union now that its economy is in economic straits. And the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which shares a 744-kilometer border with Turkmenistan, is making the leadership very nervous about security.

Officials will have more than their fair share of problems to solve next week. But if they meet Berdymukhamedov, they should tell him to let families of the disappeared see their loved ones and release people wrongly imprisoned. They should tell him to stop destroying satellite dishes, and to end the arbitrary denial of people’s right to travel abroad, starting with Tanrykuliev’s daughter and granddaughters.


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