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As US seeks closer ties with Turkmenistan, government cracks down on students

Turkmenistan has prevented dozens of students from travelling abroad to study at a US-sponsored university, and has harassed some that have come home.

By Robin Forestier-WalkerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2009

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

The United States has in recent months sought to improve relations with Turkmenistan, the secretive former Soviet possession that is home to rich oil and gas deposits and straddles a strategically vital central Asian location, sharing borders with both Iran and Afghanistan.

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But those efforts are being complicated by a government campaign against students seeking to study at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), located in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Some students have been barred from travelling abroad to the school and others have been subject to surveillance and harassment when they come home.

"What do you study, how do they teach you, and why do you study it?," are some of the routine questions that one student from Turkmenistan, who asked not to be identified to protect herself, is peppered with by Turkmen KBG officers every time she returns home from the AUCA in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

She has been fortunate enough to make it back to campus. More than 100 of her Turkmen peers enrolled at the Bishkek-based institution are still trapped in their home country, denied permission to travel abroad.

The US State Department has recently taken up these students cases, but is coming up against a wall of post-Soviet intransigence.

Problems for hundreds of Turkmen students who were studying at private universities abroad began in July. Many were ordered off their flights, by government officials, and ordered to obtain new documents. Today, only AUCA students remain banned from travel.

After weeks of quiet diplomacy by the US Embassy in Ashgabat, which helps to coordinate student scholarship programs, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue in talks with Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in New York in September.

According to embassy officials, President Berdimuhamedov agreed to allow AUCA students to transfer to the American University in Bulgaria. But on Oct. 2 a group attempting to fly to Sofia were stopped at the airport.

US dismay

"We are dismayed by the Government of Turkmenistan's continued denial of freedom of movement," the American Embassy said in a statement.

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