Turkmenistan is barring a 14-year old girl and her aunt from leaving the country as insurance that her father, a world-famous horse breeder, returns after undergoing medical treatment in Russia.*
Geldy Kyarizov, 64, was finally allowed to leave Turkmenistan for medical treatment in Russia last week. But Kyarizov’s daughter Sofia and sister-in-law Elena Serebryannik are stilled barred from leaving by the authorities, according to Human Rights Watch. In a statement urging the Turkmen government to allow the two to exit the country and calling for the U.S. and EU to put pressure on Ashgabat, Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said, “This is certainly not the first time that Turkmen officials have tried to unlawfully coerce people by depriving their children and other family members of their rights… But that doesn’t make it any less shocking.”
According to HRW, after finally allowing Kyarizov to travel to Russia, the Turkmen authorities “made clear that his daughter, Sofia, and sister-in-law, had to stay behind in Turkmenistan as a ‘guarantee’ of his return.”
Reading a 1995 article in the New York Times on the resurgence of the Akhal-Teke horse “from the Soviet Abyss,” you could be forgiven for thinking of Kyarizov as a national hero, a stark contrast to his current predicament, and that of his family:
Mr. Kyarizov began secretly buying Akhal-Tekes in the 1980s from a local horse-lover who clandestinely traded nags for state-owned Akhal-Tekes assigned to the slaughterhouse. He now owns a little more than 100 horses, and is a tireless champion of the breed.
“Look at his color, the softness of his coat,” he said as he stroked a glinting gold stallion. “English breeders only value one feature–they’ll let a horse look like a cow as long as it is swift.”
Kyarizov, at the time, was chairman of the International Association of Akhal-Teke Breeders. He was respected globally for his defense of the breed during the Soviet era. In 1928, Stalin’s collectivization campaign led to the decimation of livestock across the Soviet Union, including the Akhal-Teke. According to one estimate, the number of horses in the Soviet Union fell from over 36 million in 1928 to under 13 million in 1950. CuChullaine O’Reilly of the Long Riders Guild writes that by the early 1930s only 1,250 Akhal-Tekes remained.
In 1988, Kyarizov made a 4,300-kilometer (about 2,672 mile) journey from Ashgabat to Moscow — including 370 km of the arid Karakum desert — on his Akhal-Teke to raise awareness for the breed, which he worried would come under threat again as the Soviet Union wobbled.
A decade later, the Soviet Union was dust and Turkmenistan independent. Kyarizov was appointed the director of Turkmenatlary (Turkmen Horses), a state-run equestrian organization, by then-President Saparmurat Niyazov in 1988. According to O’Reilly:
Kyarizov secured government funding for the establishment of a large equestrian complex in the capital, complete with the nation’s first veterinary laboratory able to perform the DNA testing necessary to set up a stud book for the Akhal-Teke in Turkmenistan. What he discovered changed history and destroyed his life.
Kyarizov ran afoul of other breeders and businessmen in Ashgabat — publicizing the claim that some Turkmen breeders were mixing the revered Akhal-Teke with English Thoroughbreds to make them faster. O’Reilly writes that “when the Turkmen government was formed, it placed the Akhal-Teke on a pedestal; thereafter the horse became a sacred symbol of the country’s equestrian heritage and prestige.” Questioning the mythology was akin to questioning the state. Kyarizov’s claims were probably also read as a threat to the bottom line for other breeders and businessmen tied to the industry. An account that was published by Registan in 2012 said, “The conflict allegedly cost Kyarizov the favour of the ‘Turkmenbashi’ and led to his arrest in January 2002 on charges including ‘abuse of office’ and ‘negligence.’”
In 2002, Kyarizov was convicted and sentenced to six years in a prison camp. “Kyarizov’s son said that his father suffered ill-treatment in prison,” Human Rights Watch writes, “including severe psychological pressure, limited access to food, being forced to witness his cellmate being tortured, and threats to harm his wife and other family.” In 2008, two months shy of his release date, Kyarizov was freed — he hadn’t been included in the previous year’s mass amnesty (a semi-regular occurrence in Turkmenistan)
An alert issued in 2012 by Amnesty International said that Kyarizov was suffering from “serious heart illness, enlarged liver and high blood pressure, as well as gallbladder and gastric problems and needs access to urgent specialist medical treatment.” But Kyarizov and his family were not permitted to leave the country: “His wife, sister-in-law, and daughter attempted to leave Turkmenistan in 2006, 2008, and 2010 respectively but were denied exit.”
Turkmenistan venerates two things: its president and the Akhal-Teke. It’s a shame that one of the people responsible for honoring and resurrecting the latter continues to be persecuted by the former (who can’t even stay in the saddle.) Joshua Foust’s comments in his 2012 piece for Registan still ring true: at least Kyarizov has advocates, but “there are many other activists in Turkmenistan who languish in obscurity and irrelevance.”
*Update: Human Rights Watch reported Tuesday that Sofia Kyarizova and Elena Serebryannik were finally allowed to leave Turkmenistan on September 20. In a statement Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said “The authorities did the right thing by finally letting Kyarizova and Serebryannik leave.” But she urged the international community to not forget “that there are many more who can’t travel abroad because of the government’s unlawful and arbitrarily imposed travel bans.”