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New "rules of the game" for Turkmen refugees in Russia

New "rules of the game" for Turkmen refugees in Russia

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the oppositionist from Turkmenistan “returned” to his homeland.

Today, the website "Chronicles of Turkmenistan" published the text of the response of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia to a request about the fate of the Turkmen oppositionist Azat Isakov (pictured), who disappeared in Moscow region on October 20, 2021. The request was sent on November 1 to Russian President Vladimir Putin by an activist of the Turkmen protest movement Chemen Ore, who lives abroad.

The response, signed by the Deputy Head of the Department for the Organization of Operative-Investigative Activities of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia M.V. Karpukhin, reports that Isakov flew to Turkmenabad from Domodedovo Airport on October 22, 2021. The document does not mention any measures to force him to fly, and it is recommended to learn about the location from the Turkmen authorities.

According to human rights organizations, the oppositionist was illegally extradited to Turkmenistan, one of the most repressive countries in the world. The Interior Ministry's letter does not explain how Isakov could fly home in the absence of a lost passport and regular flights. His acquaintances believe that until recently he was seriously afraid of forced return to his homeland, there can be no talk of any voluntary return by export special flight.

Azat Isakov, who will turn 38 in December, has been living in Russia for years. Since 2019, he has been actively involved in the Turkmen protest movement, and since May 2020, he has been openly speaking on Internet channels criticizing the authorities of his country.

According to unofficial data, in June 2020, Isakov was put on the wanted list in Turkmenistan (his photograph appeared on a stand at the police station with the inscription “Traitor to the Motherland”). Since July 2020, employees of the Ministry of National Security have repeatedly demanded from the relatives of the oppositionist that he stop his speeches on the Internet, otherwise he will be “found and punished.” On July 24, 2020, the phones of all relatives living in his parents' house were seized for verification. Two days later, one of the pro-government YouTube channels reported that the authorities knew his whereabouts in Russia. Former colleagues of Isakov were forced to make video statements condemning his actions. Later, the oppositionist himself received threats via electronic channels. On September 9, 2021, he told his acquaintances about the renewed threats, early in the morning of the 15th - about the police detention, from where he was released two days later.

On October 20, 2021, Isakov sent a message to friends in Turkmen that the police had come to his place of residence and he was trying to hide. After that, communication with him was interrupted. He was not allowed to contact the representatives of «Civic Assistance», who dealt with his case and had previously been in contact with the migration service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The search for Isakov was hampered by the fact that his acquaintances did not know in which of the more than 50 cities of the Moscow region he lives. The details of his September detention and release are also unclear.

In Lebap province of Turkmenistan, where, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the oppositionist “flew out”, a quarantine and filtration center has been created, where those who arrive from abroad are checked not only for the coronavirus, but also for bacilli of dissent, dangerous for the regime. However, they can send him immediately to a pre-trial detention center.

The Isakov case shows that Moscow has introduced new “rules of the game” for Turkmen asylum seekers in Russia. Previously, the practice of abductions and hidden extraditions in relation to immigrants from Central Asia was applied only to citizens of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. From now on, the Russian authorities have extended it to Turkmenistan, with which there has not been too close cooperation through the special services in recent years. This creates a new situation, in which the threat of extradition of other Turkmen refugees also increases markedly.

Some sources in Ashgabat link the operation agreed between the parties to expel Isakov with the name of the former Minister of Justice, Begmurat Mukhamedov, who was recently appointed to the Foreign Ministry.

The extradition of Isakov probably became part of the "big game" in relations between the two countries. On the eve of the summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States in Istanbul, to which Turkmenistan decided to join as an observer, Moscow is trying to convince Ashgabat that it is a more reliable ally than Ankara. In Turkey, the judiciary is relatively independent, that is why none of the Turkmen oppositionists detained in the autumn was eventually sent home, all of them were released. But in Russia, the security services do not face this kind of legal difficulty. If the law interferes, it is easily circumvented and with impunity. This was demonstrated by the case of Isakov, who became a hostage of the Kremlin's geopolitical games.

Tajigul Begmedova, Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights

Vitaly Ponomaryov, Human Rights Center «Memorial»

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