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Student In Turkey 'Tricked Back' To Turkmenistan And Imprisoned

Turkmen student Omriuzak Omarkulyev (file photo)
Turkmen student Omriuzak Omarkulyev (file photo)

Just six months ago, Omriuzak Omarkulyev was a successful university student in Turkey. Now he is in a Turkmen prison serving a long sentence.

A citizen of Turkmenistan, Omarkulyev had founded a "community of Turkmen students" in Turkey while he was studying at Osmaniye Korkut Ata University.

He was contacted in January by the Turkmen Embassy in Ankara and told that officials in Turkmenistan were impressed with his activism in Turkey and wanted to support his efforts at the university.

The embassy officials said they would like for him to visit Turkmenistan in February and meet with representatives from the Central Election Commission and even address parliament as a fine example of the country's youth.

Omarkulyev said believed he would be trained to serve as an observer for Turkmenistan's March 25 parliamentary elections and also asked to help get students to vote.

But he was not an observer at the closely controlled elections, he did not address parliament, he never got a chance to rally students to vote, and it looks like he will not be going back to his studies in Turkey anytime soon.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, discovered that Omarkulyev is in Turkmenistan's notorious Ovadan-Depe prison and he might be there a very long time.

Azatlyk was recently in contact with some of those close to Omarkulyev in Turkey who said that Omarkulyev is in Ovadan-Depe.

It is possible to trace some of the events leading up to Omarkulyev's incarceration. He was in contact with Azatlyk on January 21, appearing on Azatlyk's Turkmen Of The World program from Turkey, discussing his organization and the Turkmen Embassy's interest in his Turkmen student community.

In March, he told Azatlyk that he had returned to Turkmenistan on February 14 and taken part in a workshop on preparing for the February 21 elections and had a ticket for a return flight to Turkey on February 22.

"I should have left on the Ashgabat-Istanbul flight at 7:30 a.m., but officials from the migration service wouldn't let me on [the plane]," he said. "They said my passport was not valid."

Omarkulyev immediately went to the Turkmen migration service. They said there was nothing wrong with his passport and that he could leave the country.

He went to the Ashgabat airport every day until March 1 trying to board the flight to Istanbul but was turned away each time. When he tried again to fly on March 9, officials from the migration service told Omarkulyev he could not return to Turkey to continue his studies.

"My wife is there [in Turkey]. She is also in a complicated situation.... I don't know what the Committee for National Security plans to do with me," Omarkulyev said.

"I'd like to appeal to our respected president [Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and ask him to] let me return to my studies in Turkey. My wife is worried. She's waiting for me."

Incommunicado For Weeks

That was the last time Omarkulyev was in contact with Azatlyk.

Azatlyk had tried for weeks to contact him but did not know his whereabouts until some people close to him called them to say that he was in prison.

Azatlyk's attempts to contact Turkmenistan's embassy in Ankara to ask about Omarkulyev have been unsuccessful.

If Omarkulyev is indeed in Ovadan-Depe prison, it will be difficult to get information about his situation -- even to find out the charges against him.

The Prove They Are Alive campaign, a coalition of rights organizations, has documented 113 people who have "disappeared" after being taken into custody in Turkmenistan.

Turkmen authorities generally object to Azatlyk's work and people who have spoken to RFE/RL reporters or cooperated with the media outlet have often received visits from Turkmen security officials and blunt warnings about any future contacts.

The Turkmen Embassy contacted Omarkulyev before he spoke with Azatlyk, so it is not known if that is the reason he has been imprisoned.

Turkmen journalist Soltan Achilova
Turkmen journalist Soltan Achilova

Correspondent Soltan Achilova, a 69-year-old woman, has been physically and verbally assaulted several times, most recently on June 9.

Another correspondent, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, was released from prison on May 19 after serving nearly three years in prison for a narcotics conviction that human rights groups and the UN denounced as politically motivated.

In 2016, former correspondent Khudayberdy Allashov was arrested for three months before being given a three-year suspended sentence for reporting about the economic woes of Turkmen.

Achilova, Nepeskuliev, and Allashov worked for Azatlyk but Omarkulyev only gave a few interviews to RFE/RL.

Omarkulyev never said anything negative about Turkmenistan's government in his comments to Azatlyk, he only mentioned he was having problems returning to Turkey.

Turkmen authorities have been preventing people from leaving the country but authorities have not been arresting and imprisoning them for having plane tickets to go to other countries.

Why Turkmen officials chose to treat Omarkulyev in such a fashion is unclear, though it is obvious from Omarkulyev's comments that his activities at the Turkish university were being monitored.

Many consider the methods used to bring him back to Turkmenistan abhorrent.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Farruh Yusupov contributed to this report
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.