“The police are here. If they find me, they’ll take me in. I’ve gone into hiding.” These are the last words Turkmen human rights activist, Chemen Ore, heard from Azat Isakov, a dissident from Turkmenistan who had been living in Russia for about six years. Ore, who lives in exile in Nepal, told Human Rights Watch that Isakov texted her this message from Russia on October 20. He’s been missing ever since.
In a letter, Russia’s Interior Ministry informed Ore that Isakov flew from Moscow to Turkmenabad on October 22. But according to multiple sources, Isakov had lost his passport and had repeatedly said he had no desire to return to Turkmenistan.
It’s easy to understand why. Turkmenistan’s extraordinarily repressive government severely punishes all dissent, and there are many grim examples of people being imprisoned for daring to criticize the authorities. Isakov began publicly criticizing the Turkmen government in 2020, after its gross mishandling of the aftermath of a disastrous hurricane in his home region.
Turkmen security services repeatedly threatened Isakov’s family, pressuring them to get him to stop his activism and even confiscating their phones. Several days after the confiscation, a pro-government YouTube channel stated that authorities knew where he was living in Russia.
Ore says she has learned through informal channels that Isakov is in the Turkmen security services’ custody but has had no further information from these sources in the past three days.
There are many unanswered questions around Isakov’s removal from Russia to Turkmenistan, but there is no reason to doubt that he is now in Turkmen detention, yet another victim of an enforced disappearance. The nature of enforced disappearances means information about his detention and fate are being concealed.
There is also no doubt that Isakov is at dire risk of torture and other abuses, which are widespread in Turkmenistan’s detention centers. Dozens of people who have fallen afoul of Turkmenistan’s government remain victims of enforced disappearance, some for almost 19 years.
Turkmen authorities should immediately confirm Isakov’s whereabouts and free him. The Biden administration and the European Union, both of which hold annual human rights dialogues with the Turkmen government, should urge the same.