Update: Khursanai Ismatullayeva's detention was ultimately acknowledged and she was sentenced to nine years on bogus fraud charges in November 2021. She was released in December 2022 under the annual presidential amnesty.
On July 16, police in Turkmenistan arrested a doctor whose unfair dismissal was raised during a human rights panel that I moderated that was held a day earlier by the European Parliament. Khursanai Ismatullaeva had worked at a neonatal clinic near Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital until she was fired in 2017. She has been fighting the dismissal since, in a case allegedly marred by irregularities.
Turkmen.news, an independent outlet based in the Netherlands, reported that about 10 police detained Ismatullaeva from her home and confiscated telephones and computer equipment. Four days later, there is no official information on her whereabouts or the reason for her arrest. Any failure by the authorities to acknowledge Ismatullaeva’s detention or efforts to conceal her whereabouts would qualify her detention as an enforced disappearance, a very serious crime under international law.
Ismatullaeva’s detention is extremely alarming. Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world. The government tolerates no criticism and has a horrific record of imprisoning people who expose, or even hint at, its rampant corruption, injustices, and incompetence. Dozens of people are forcibly disappeared in the prison system, some for more than fifteen years, while their families have no information about them, even whether they are dead or alive.
The government also has a terrible record on the rule of law. It is exceedingly difficult to find justice for abuse. At the European Parliament panel, Ismatullaeva’s four-year struggle challenging her dismissal, was introduced to highlight this.
The timing of Ismatullaeva’s detention and the government’s abusive record leave little doubt that authorities are retaliating against her for allowing her case to be heard in an international forum. They may also be trying to silence others in Turkmenistan who might speak out about abuse, intimidate them from speaking with Turkmen human rights groups outside the country, and emotionally blackmail human rights activists who raise concerns.
Every minute that Ismatullaeva spends in custody increases her risk of torture or other ill-treatment, or coercion to get her to confess to bogus charges. The European Union, which recently held a human rights dialogue with the Turkmen government, shouldn’t tolerate blatant retaliation for rights discussions within its institutions. It should lose no time in demanding Ismatullaeva’s immediate release.