Freedom for Eurasia „Turkmen human rights defender denied transit through Türkiye citing national security threat“

On November 22, 2023 a well-known human rights activist Tajigul Begmedova, who heads the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Bulgaria, was deported from Istanbul, Türkiye to Varna, Bulgaria. Turkish authorities cite “threat to national security” as the basis for the entry ban.

On November 21, 2023 Begmedova flew to Istanbul, from where a few days later she planned to fly to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to participate in the international festival of documentary films about human rights “Bir Duino – Kyrgyzstan 2023”.

Around noon, while going through passport control at the new Istanbul airport, she was stopped and told to “wait”. At approximately 3 p.m., Begmedova was taken into a room intended for passengers who were denied entry. When asked what was the reason for not allowing entry across the border, one of the employees replied: “You know better”. The activist was fingerprinted and photographed, her things were inspected, and when asked to inform about the reasons for such actions, they said: “You’ll find out later.”

Tajigul was not the only one detained. There were more than 20 men and women in the detention sector; by nightfall their number exceeded 50 people. There were especially many passengers from Dagestan, also from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Romania, Moldova, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Great Britain. Some of them were transiting through Türkiye on their way home. The detainees had no opportunity to use the toilet, there were no seats, it was stuffy due to poor ventilation, and the airline provided food only later in the evening.

At about 5 p.m., the human rights defender was given a document stating that she would be deported to Bulgaria at 09:15 the next day. At approximately 6 a.m., another document was handed over, according to which on September 12, 2023, the Turkish Migration Service decided to ban Begmedova from entering for 5 years. In accordance with current practice in Türkiye, the activist was assigned the code G-82, associated with a threat to national security. In the event of a further “serious threat” to security, the ban could be extended by another 10 years.

In the morning, the human rights activist was escorted to the plane and deported to Varna on a Turkish Airlines flight, while her luggage, despite repeated reminders, was never returned to her.

The Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, headed by Begmedova, is one of the key organizations created by Turkmen dissidents that actively works with citizens of Turkmenistan. The foundation’s website regularly publishes materials about the problems of Turkmen migrants in Türkiye and human rights violations in Turkmenistan. In the spring of 2023, THF took part in the preparation of alternative reports on Turkmenistan and Türkiye as part of the consideration of the Universal Periodic Reports at the UN. The Foundation also assisted in the registration of the human rights organization “Hak Нukuga Daýanç” in Turkey this year, which defends the rights of Turkmen migrants, which caused an extremely negative reaction from Ashgabat. On November 7, 2023 THF held a side event in Geneva ahead of the consideration of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Turkmenistan where THF and their colleagues from HUman Rigts Advocacy Group and Freedom for Eurasia raised urgent issues regarding human rights abuses committed against Turkmen citizens.

Previously, on January 5, 2022, Begmedova had already encountered a similar situation when she tried to enter Türkiye by bus from Bulgaria to meet with activists. Then the Turkish authorities also cited a “threat to public safety” and the leadership of a foreign NGO as reasons for the ban. The human rights activist appealed these actions, as a result of which the ban was lifted by the court on March 8, 2023 , after which she was again able to visit Istanbul. Yesterday, the activist reported this court decision to Turkish border guards. They confirmed that their electronic database contains data about the lifting of the old ban, but now, according to them, a new ban has been introduced against Begmedova.

The actions of the Turkish authorities, most likely inspired by requests from Ashgabat, are in obvious contradiction with the statements of diplomats of these countries at the 44th UN Human Rights Session during the consideration of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Turkmenistan in Geneva. At this event, representatives of the official delegations of Türkiye and Turkmenistan, among other things, stated the importance of developing civil society and collaborating with human rights defenders.

Last week Turkmen authorities prohibited independent journalist Soltan Achilova from traveling from Ashgabat to Geneva for the Martin Ennals Award ceremony for human rights activists.

We call on Turkish authorities to lift the ban against Begmedova and uphold its international human rights obligations.