10 Turkmen Doctors Barred from Leaving Turkmenistan for US Exchange
Ambassador Robert Patterson, recently confirmed by the US Senate as envoy to Turkmenistan, said at his nomination hearing that he hoped to focus on people-to-people exchanges as an incremental step on the way to lessening restrictions on civil society.
Even before he arrives in Ashgabat, his work is cut out for him.
On April 6, Turkmen authorities denied a group of Turkmen doctors from departing Ashgabat to take part in an exchange in the United States, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) reported.
The doctors from various medical institutions and government agencies under the Turkmen Ministry of Health Care were supposed to participate in a program organized through the US Embassy called "Community Connections." They were stopped at the Ashgabat airport at the passport control desk and barred from boarding the plane.
Similar action was taken against students headed for American-funded programs a year ago, but eventually the Turkmen authorities relented and permitted some of them to go abroad.
According to a notice on the website of the American Councils for International Education, a group of Turkmen professionals was expected in the US April 6-27 to study multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and effective approaches for managing cases. The training could have come in handy -- as Doctors Without Borders reported when they were forced to leave Turkmenistan after a decade of work, TB is possibly the country's most serious health care problem.
Another group is expected June 8-June 29 to study small and medium enterprise development.
Last year the Turkmen government barred health care workers from going abroad as tourists because they were going on buying trips to Turkey, and then reselling clothing and cosmetics to supplement their income, says TIHR.
According to people involved in the trip, the US Embassy was "puzzled" over the denial and was investigating the reasons for the ban.
The U.S. has provided substantial assistance to Turkmenistan -- neighbors with Iran and Afghanistan -- to strengthen its borders through training border guards, helping to build border installations, and supplying equipment for border surveillance. Apparently the lessons have been taken to heart quite zealously -- for Turkmen citizens travelling abroad first and foremost.