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'I Won't Be Silenced': Turkmen Journalist Defiant After Being Strip-Searched, Stopped From Flying To Europe

"I will continue my work -- I will work even harder. I won't be silenced as long as I'm alive," Soltan Achilova said. (file photo)
"I will continue my work -- I will work even harder. I won't be silenced as long as I'm alive," Soltan Achilova said. (file photo)

Independent Turkmen journalist Soltan Achilova says she "won't be silenced" by the country's authoritarian government after officials prevented her from flying to Switzerland for a meeting honoring human rights defenders worldwide.

"I will continue my work -- I will work even harder. I won't be silenced as long as I'm alive," she told RFE/RL on November 20.

Achilova said she was strip-searched and humiliated at Ashgabat International Airport, where officials didn't allow the 74-year-old journalist or her daughter to board a plane on November 17 despite having valid passports, visas, and tickets.

The only journalist in Turkmenistan who openly criticizes the authoritarian government, Achilova was scheduled to attend the Martin Ennals Award human rights ceremony in Switzerland on November 21.

She was one of three finalists for the group's annual award in 2021 but wasn't able to travel abroad to receive her runner-up award because of the coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

Achilova said airport officials demanded that she and her daughter pass through the body scanners twice, thoroughly checked their belongings, and repeatedly put their handbags, umbrellas, and even Achilova's walking stick through the X-ray machines.

"Then they strip-searched me, touching me all over my body," Achilova told RFE/RL on November 20. "Then we were held for quite a long time at passport control. The officer returned our passports and said, 'The machine could not read your passports details, because your documents were kept in a moldy place.'"

Achilova accused a passport-control officer of deliberately damaging their passport pages with wet paper towels. "It had all been planned in advance by the officials," she said. "I knew they wouldn't allow me to go abroad."

Threats, Physical Attacks

Government pressure is all-too familiar to Achilova, a former RFE/RL correspondent who is currently a contributor to the Vienna-based opposition news website Khronika Turkmenistana (Chronicles of Turkmenistan).

Achilova faced detention, verbal threats, and physical attacks, which the journalist and her supporters describe as government retaliation for her work. Many of her relatives have also been threatened.

Soltan Achilova
Soltan Achilova

Ashgabat doesn't tolerate any dissent and the government has stifled independent media, forced opposition activists into self-exile, and blocked access to all major social media and messaging apps to virtually cut its citizens off from the rest of the world.

The last instant-messaging app, IMO, became inaccessible in Turkmenistan this summer.

Achilova was briefly detained in 2018 by plainclothes officers who deleted photos on her camera. She said she was threatened with detention on drug charges.

In another attack shortly thereafter, Achilova was beaten by unknown assailants while getting off an Ashgabat city bus.

In 2019, she was prevented from boarding a plane to Tbilisi to attend an international seminar.

The latest incident against Achilova at the airport has stoked new condemnation of Turkmen officials.

"By barring Soltan Achilova from traveling to Geneva to receive @martinennals award, the Turkmen [government] is doing more to damage to its reputation than anything Achilova could have possibly said while abroad. It's not too late for [Turkmenistan] to right things and let Achilova travel," wrote Rachel Denber, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.

Ivar Dale, a senior adviser to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee rights group, called the incident "infuriating" and condemned Turkmenistan for violating its citizens' rights.

"Turkmenistan is one of the very few countries that actively stops [its] citizens from travelling abroad. They even asked Turkey to introduce a visa regime for [Turkmen] rather than try and improve the standing of the Turkmen passport. Unbelievable," he said.

The Martin Ennals Award told RFE/RL that it was "working on a solution for her travel" and would not comment on the situation.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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