“Won’t be silenced”: independent journalist Achilova was not allowed on a flight from Turkmenistan

On November 17, Turkmenistan prevented independent journalist Soltan Achilova from flying to Switzerland to attend a human rights meeting. A 74-year-old woman and her daughter were taken off the flight at Ashgabat International Airport, searched and humiliated by stripping her naked. Radio Azatlyk reported this.

According to the publication, Soltan Achilova is the only journalist in Turkmenistan who openly criticizes the government, despite detentions, threats and physical attacks. The woman declares that an authoritarian government “will not silence her,” but on the contrary, obstacles provoke her to work even harder and harder.

The story of the flight ban in Turkmenistan is increasingly becoming a traditional practice. The country’s authorities, despite having valid passports, visas and tickets, sometimes do not even allow students onto the flight.

Achilova was scheduled to attend the Martin Ennals Human Rights Award ceremony in Switzerland on November 21. The woman was one of three winners of the annual award in 2021, but due to pandemic restrictions did not attend the event.

This time, airport officials demanded that she and her daughter go through scanners several times, thoroughly check their belongings, and repeatedly run their bags, umbrellas, and even Achilova’s cane through X-ray machines. Then the woman was searched, undressed, her body was touched and she was kept at passport control for a long time. As a result, the border control officer returned the passports and said that the machine could not read the passport data due to “storing the documents in a damp place.” But in fact, according to the journalist, the control officer deliberately ruined the pages of the passport with wet wipes.

“All this was planned in advance by officials. I knew that they would not allow me to go abroad,” Achilova said.

Soltan Achilova currently writes for the opposition news website Chronicle of Turkmenistan, whose editorial office is based in Vienna. The woman had previously faced arrests, verbal threats, physical attacks and unfounded drug charges. Her relatives also received their share of threats. The woman was not allowed on the flight to Tbilisi, where she was supposed to participate in an international seminar.

The latest incident with Achilova at the airport, as Radio Azatlyk writes, caused a stir: human rights groups condemned the actions of the Turkmen authorities.

“By banning Soltan Achilova from traveling to Geneva to receive the @martinennals award, the Turkmen [government] is doing more damage to its reputation than anything Achilova could have said while abroad. It’s not too late for [Turkmenistan] to correct the situation and allow Achilova to travel,” Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, wrote on social media X (formerly Twitter).

Ivar Dahle, senior adviser to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, called the incident “outrageous” and condemned Turkmenistan for violating the rights of its citizens.
“Turkmenistan is one of the few countries that actively prevents [its] citizens from traveling abroad. The authorities even asked Turkey to introduce a visa regime for [Turkmenistan], instead of trying to improve the status of the Turkmen passport. Incredible,” he wrote in X.

Representatives of the Martin Ennals Award told Azatlyk that they are “working to resolve the problem” of Achilova’s departure and will not make any statements about the situation for now.

Let us remind you that Turkmenistan is one of the most closed states in the world. The country’s authorities do not tolerate opposition opinions, suppress independent media, control official media, force opposition activists to leave the country, and persecute and threaten activists outside its borders. Authorities are also blocking access to major social networks and instant messengers, effectively cutting off their citizens from communication. And those who try to “circumvent” the ban are put in prison.