New York, NY, April 17, 2006—Capping a week of high diplomatic drama, prominent Turkmen novelist and dissident Rakhim Esenov boarded a plane last night in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan to travel to the United States, where he is to receive a 2006 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award at the PEN American Center Gala on Tuesday evening, April 18 in New York.

Esenov had vowed that he would attempt to board the flight even after Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov announced late last week that Esenov was being denied permission to make the trip. Officials from the US Embassy and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) filed diplomatic protests challenging the decision, and US Embassy staff accompanied Esenov and a family member to the gate Sunday evening. This will be the first trip to the United States for the 78 year-old writer, one of the most famous political dissidents in Central Asia, and the first time he has been allowed out of Turkmenistan since he was detained in March 2004 as he was returning home from Moscow and charged with smuggling 800 copies of his banned novel Ventsenosny Skitalets (The Crowned Wanderer) into the country.

Esenov has been living since then under house arrest in Ashgabat, and PEN American Center presented him with its award specifically to challenge his continuing confinement. On March 24, 2006, he was informed that he is to receive the award when officials of the United States Embassy visited him in his home in Ashgabat. At that meeting, Esenov accepted PEN’s invitation to travel to New York for the awards, and PEN worked closely with the US Embassy in Ashgabat to make the trip possible.

In a letter to President Saparmurad Niyazov, PEN rejected the government’s assertion that Esenov is barred from traveling following criminal convictions.

PEN has been following Mr. Esenov’s case closely since he was arrested and copies of his novel Ventsenosny Skitalets (The Crowned Wanderer) were confiscated in February 2004. We have vigorously protested the charges filed against him as a clear violation of his universally-guaranteed right to freedom of expression, and we have no information that he was ever convicted on these or any other charges. Mr. Esenov himself has reported that he was accused but never convicted, and that his only punishment was to agree not to leave the country for two years, a term that expired on March 6.

PEN believes any such travel ban would constitute a further violation of Mr. Esenov’s rights as guaranteed under international human rights covenants. And we adamantly insist that he be allowed to travel now that the two-year term has expired.

Esenov will receive the award at the PEN Gala, which will take place tomorrow night starting at 7 p.m. at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Listen to Esenov speaking at the Open Society Institute’s “Speaking Out for Freedom to Write”

For More Information:

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105 (business hours) or (646) 359-0594 (evenings and weekends)