Ashgabat (AFP) Dec 2, 2009
Wiping back the tears from his bloodshot eyes, Andrei struggles to understand why nobody seems to care that he has become a prisoner inside his own country's borders.
One of 150 local students barred since August from leaving ex-Soviet Turkmenistan to return to his US-funded university, he despairs that the West, more interested in his country's oil and gas resources than human rights, has abandoned him.
"Honestly speaking, I think if the Americans wanted us to be out of here, we'd be out. Why doesn't (US President Barack) Obama give an interview saying.... that this is against human rights? Why hasn't the United Nations done anything?" he asked.
"You will do something. You will write something so that they will let me go," he told AFP during a rare visit by a foreign journalist to Turkmenistan.
For almost four months Turkmenistan has refused to allow students of the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Kyrgyzstan to leave the country, while warning their families against speaking out publicly about the issue.
High-level intervention from Washington -- US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov at a recent meeting in New York -- has so far not broken the impasse.
The secretive Turkmen government has never publicly acknowledged the ban, and it is unclear why authorities will not let the students leave home to continue their studies.
Washington had earlier agreed a deal with Turkmenistan to transfer some of the students to an American University campus in Bulgaria, but the students were stopped at the border and refused exit in October.
As the weeks have turned into months with no resolution in sight, the case has led to despair among the students and anger among Western diplomats.
"The emphasis now needs to change. This isn't a study-abroad issue. It's a human rights issue," said one diplomat who requested anonymity in order to discuss the potentially sensitive topic.
"Under the framework of the constitution of Turkmenistan as we understand it, there is no right for the government to deny its citizens exit. There is no legal basis for them to be doing this."
Turkmenistan, an impoverished nation bordering Iran and Afghanistan whose deserts contain some of the world's largest reserves of natural gas, is a frequent target of criticism by activists over its human rights record.
Despite Berdymukhamedov's promises to reform his country following the death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, Turkmenistan remains one of the world's most isolated and repressive states.
Although the right to freedom of travel is enshrined in Turkmenistan's constitution, the authorities are believed to maintain a blacklist of citizens who are barred from travelling abroad.
Diplomatic sources in Ashgabat told AFP they know little about the contents of the list, but believe it mostly contains the names of convicted criminals, human rights activists and those with ties to Western journalists.
It is believed that those on the list, which likely numbers into the hundreds and possibly more, are barred from leaving the country for between five and seven years.
But no one has accused the students of breaking any law that might land them on the blacklist, which has added to the confusion surrounding the situation and complicated efforts to have it resolved.
"These are not criminals, they are just kids who want to go and get an education," the diplomat said.
AFP attempted to contact several of the students, and all but one declined to speak, saying they feared for their own safety and that of their families.
Andrei, which is a pseudonym, only agreed to speak on the condition that his name and personal information be disguised to shield him from retaliation.
He said almost all of the students had been visited in their homes by members of the country's MNB (ex-KGB) intelligence service and shown lists with their parents' names and places of work.
The message was clear: keep quiet or suffer the consequences.
The ordeal seems to have taken a toll on Andrei, a bright student with fluent English who said that he dreamed of working abroad and becoming "a kind of bridge between Europe and Asia."
During a lengthy interview he frequently fidgeted, alternating at a moment's notice between loud laughter and bouts of crying.
Things that never upset him before now plunge him into deep depression as his nerves have frayed, he said, and he finds himself increasingly isolated from the outside world without a job or school to attend.
"I feel totally alone, totally abandoned.... You don't know what to do. Whether you should sit at home all day and try and then maybe they'll give you an amnesty. Like a robber. Like a terrorist."
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