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By Felix Corley, Forum 18

Former Baptist prisoner of conscience Shageldy Atakov was denied permission to leave Turkmenistan on 25 May without being given a reason, Baptist sources and the Migration Service at Ashgabad [Ashgabat] Airport said on 31 May. “We blocked him from traveling – he’s here on the list,” a Migration Service officer at the airport who refused to give his name. However, he declined absolutely to explain why Atakov was barred from travelling. “We have a rule that we can’t give out such information, but people are only stopped from leaving if they have problems with the government.” He declined to explain what reasons would bar someone from being allowed to leave.

Known dissidents have long faced problems in trying to leave Turkmenistan

– both before and after the much-trumpeted abolition of exit visas in January 2004.
There are an increasing number of Turkmen residents banned from leaving the country, because the authorities do not like their religious activity.

Among recent cases, a group of Protestants who had visas were not handed their pre-paid tickets ahead of their planned departure from Ashgabad airport in April 2006 and were thus unable to travel. Protestants are frequent victims, but others known to have been denied permission to leave are Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah’s Witnesses (see F18News 9 November.

Although the official refused to say how many people are barred from leaving from Ashgabad airport each day, regular travelers from the airport have said in recent months that several people are routinely taken off each flight, often from the airplane itself after they have passed through passport control.

As part of their isolationist policies, the Turkmen authorities usually deny visas to foreign religious figures wishing to come to the country to make contact with local fellow-believers.
Baptist sources said Atakov – a Turkmen citizen – was due to fly to Moscow to meet fellow Baptists. He already had a ticket, had passed through passport control and was sitting in the aeroplane when officers of the secret police took him off the flight shortly before takeoff was due. “Officers told him they had an order ‘from above’ not to allow him to leave the country,” one Baptist told Forum 18. “But none of them was prepared to say who had issued the order.”

After being barred from leaving, Atakov wrote a letter of complaint but the officers would not say who it would be passed on to. “This travel ban is something new for our people,” the Baptist added.

The Migration Service official claimed that those denied permission to leave can complain to the Migration Service’s Central Directorate in the capital, Ashgabad. “They’ll give people the reason why they’ve been banned from travelling abroad.” He also claimed that those refused permission to leave can reclaim seventy percent of the cost of their ticket from Turkmenistan Airlines or, if they are traveling on another airline, from that airline. “They’ll give that money back even if it’s not the fault of the traveler that they can’t leave,” he insisted. However, the Baptists say Atakov has not received back the money he spent on his ticket to Moscow .

Atakov – a convert to Christianity who is a member of a Council of Churches Baptist congregation, who refuse who refuse on principle to register with the authorities in post-Soviet countries – was arrested in Turkmenbashi [Türkmenbashy, formerly Krasnovodsk] in December 1998. He was sentenced in March 1999 on charges of swindling and forging documents, which church members insist were fabricated to obstruct his church activities. While imprisoned, he was forcibly treated with psychotropic drugs (mind-altering) drugs. He was freed in January 2002 after intense international pressure, returning to live with his wife Artygul and their five children in the town of Kaakhka , midway between Ashgabad and Tejenstroy, near the border with Iran .
Since his release, Atakov has visited Russia . Baptists told Forum 18 that more than four years after his release from labor camp he remains under close surveillance.

The abolition of exit visas on paper, but continued practice of barring people from leaving the country, is not the only claimed “improvement” which violates the religious freedom of Turkmen citizens. Allegedly easier state registration of religious communities – part of another claimed “liberalization” – is not experienced as a “liberalization” by many religious community.