In March 2018, Omriuzak Omarkulyev, a Turkmen student who had been studying abroad at Osmaniye Korkut Ata University in Turkey, was reportedly detained after being prevented from leaving Turkmenistan to return to Turkey to continue his studies
In January 2018, officials from the Turkmen Embassy in Ankara reportedly met with Mr. Omarkulyev and shared a purported invitation from the Central Election Committee to return to Turkmenistan and assist with the elections in February. Mr. Omarkulyev accepted the invitation and traveled to Turkmenistan to assist in the election. When he attempted to return to Turkey following the election, however, customs and border officials refused to allow him to exit the country, claiming his passport was “invalid.” In March 2018, after several more failed attempts to leave the country, Mr. Omarkulyev reportedly went missing. In June 2018, Mr. Omarkulyev’s family reported that he was being held in Ovadan-Depe Prison.
Sources suggest that Mr. Omarkulyev was detained in connection with his activism and interviews with independent media outlet Azatlyk (RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty’s Turkmen Service). Mr. Omarkulyev co-founded a Turkmen student group at his university, which reportedly was monitored by Turkmen authorities. On January 21, 2018, he appeared on Azatlyk’s Turkmen of the World program, during which he discussed his activism as well as the Turkmen authorities’ interest in his student group. He spoke again with Azatlyk in March 2018 about the travel restriction he was facing, and appealed to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to allow him to return to Turkey.
As of this report, Turkmen authorities have not publicly disclosed information regarding Mr. Omarkulyev’s whereabouts or any pending charges or sentencing. However, sources close to Mr. Omarkulyevhim have reported that he has been charged with a crime, and faces a possible prison sentence of up to 20 years.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest, detention, and restrictions on travel of a student in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkmenistan is a party. State authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with the rights to academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association, so long as they are exercised peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such actions have a chilling effect on these rights and undermine democratic society generally.