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Turkmenistan: Activists Decry Arrests Of RFE/RL Journalists

  • Bruce Pannier --> Turkmenistan remains one of the world's most closed societies (AFP) More rights organizations are expressing concern over last week's arrest of two Radio Liberty correspondents in Turkmenistan. There has been no information about Meret Khommadov and Jumadurdy Ovezov since Turkmen police took them on March 7. This week, rights organizations in Europe and the United States have taken up the matter and are calling for governments and international bodies to address the issue.

PRAGUE, March 14, 2006 -- On March 14, it was the Moscow-based rights center Memorial that expressed concern about the arrest of the two RFE/RL correspondents.'

Vitaly Ponomaryov, the director of Memorial's program for monitoring human rights in Central Asia, recounted that Khommadov and Ovezov were arrested by police last week, that relatives of the two correspondents have not heard from them since then, and neither were being held at the regional police detention center.

Ponomaryov said that according to his organization's information, both were handed over to Turkmenistan's National Security Ministry, the successor of the Soviet-era KGB.

'A Very Troubling Situation'

Vitaly Ponomaryov (courtesy photo)

Ponomaryov said the two regularly reported on the social situation in Turkmenistan, about the decline of the educational system, and controversy over a recent decision to reduce the number of people receiving pensions.

"We think it is a very troubling situation and we believe they [Khommadov and Ovezov] should be allowed to continue their work, they should be released and it should be communicated why [the arrests] took place, because as far as we know [no one] has been informed about why these people were arrested," said Darla Orlova of the International Press Institute.

In a statement issued today, Amnesty International expressed concern that the two "have been held incommunicado since their arrest" and that they are "at risk of torture or ill-treatment." The organization said they are prisoners of conscience and noted that "Radio Liberty journalists have been deliberately targeted by the authorities in the past for their reporting."

Reports Without Borders (RSF) also issued a statement on March 14. The Paris-based group said "the complete absence of information about the reasons and circumstances of the arrest of these journalists is a perfect illustration of the lack of transparency in Turkmenistan." The group condemned such "repressive methods" and called for the journalists' immediate release.

On March 13, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights released a joint open letter. It said that "as the only remaining source of independent information in the country, RFE/RL journalists are regularly subjected to harassment by the authorities." The letter noted the arrests were not "isolated attacks on freedom of expression and journalists in Turkmenistan."

That same day, Rachel Denber, the acting deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, expressed her organization's apprehensions about the arrests.

'No New Information'

"We are deeply, deeply concerned about the fate of the RFE/RL journalists who were arrested last week," Denber said. "We have no new information about what has happened to them and so our concern is, obviously, what their whereabouts are and how they are being treated in custody, and we would urge the Turkmen government, immediately, to make their whereabouts known and to release them immediately."

Denber echoed comments made in the letter from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.

A demonstration for press freedom on Turkmenistan that was held in Moscow in August 2005 (courtesy photo)

"Unfortunately, their arrest is just the latest example of the Turkmen government's complete intolerance of any independent voices in Turkmenistan."

The Turkmen government has been resistant to such complaints in the past. But the rights groups voicing concerns now hope they can enlist the aid of other organizations to apply pressure on the Turkmen government to at least provide some answers.

"We will send appeals to the [Turkmen] government and try to alert the international community about the situation of the correspondents in Turkmenistan to get international support behind [them]," Orlova said.

A Deplorable Human Rights Situation

The letter from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to take up the matter. The letter noted that the OSCE "must address the lack of improvement of the human rights situation in Turkmenistan," as a participating state in the OSCE, and that the OSCE Permanent Council should include this issue on its agenda for discussion as soon as possible.

(Guvanch Geraev of the Turkmen Service also contributed to this report.)

Committee To Protect Journalists


'DEEPLY ALARMED': New York, March 9, 2006 --Two correspondents for the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are being held incommunicado after being arrested on Tuesday, and the U.S. government-funded broadcaster said today it has lost contact with its entire network of correspondents in the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply alarmed by the developments and called on the Turkmen government to disclose details of the arrests, allow restoration of contact with RFE/RL journalists, and halt its intimidation of the broadcaster’s reporters.

MERET KHOMMADOV and DZHUMADURDY OVEZOV, who reported from the region of Mary in southeastern Turkmenistan, were arrested by local police and taken to an unknown location, according to RFE/RL and other published reports. Charges against the two journalists have not been disclosed, and authorities refused to speak to the families of the two men, the radio service reported. Khommadov and Ovezov reported on social, economic, and cultural issues.

'Doing Their Jobs'

RFE/RL said in a statement that its Turkmen service has been unable to contact its other correspondents for 10 days. The Turkmen service relies on about a half dozen correspondents, who file on an irregular basis from inside the closed country. RFE/RL Acting President Jeff Trimble issued a public appeal today, saying its correspondents “are guilty of nothing more than trying to do their jobs as journalists and report the news."

One of those correspondents, SHAMURAD AKOYLIYEV, was summoned to the Balkansk branch of the Ministry of National Security (MNB) in late February, when security officers warned him of the “unacceptability” of his affiliation with RFE/RL, the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights told CPJ. The exact date of the interrogation was not immediately clear, but authorities later cut off Akoyliyev’s telephone and the MNB began 24-hour surveillance, the human rights group said. Relatives were pressured to halt communication with Akoyliyev, the group said.

Lost Contact

RFE/RL lost contact with Akoyliyev on February 28. Akoyliyev reported from the western Balkansk region, where he primarily covered sports.

Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most closed societies, and RFE/RL is considered the only independent source of news and information in the country. Authorities routinely persecute journalists affiliated with the radio service, private citizens who have given interviews to RFE/RL, and relatives and friends of RFE/RL journalists, according to CPJ research. Most RFE/RL correspondents use pseudonyms to avoid official harassment, which includes threats, detentions, interrogations, surveillance, torture, and imprisonment.

“We’re alarmed by Turkmen authorities’ actions against our colleagues Meret Khommadov and Dzhumadurdy Ovezov, and we are very concerned that RFE/RL cannot contact its correspondents,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on authorities to disclose the whereabouts and all other details concerning Ovezov and Khommadov and to release the journalists immediately. We also call on government officials to halt their campaign of intimidation against RFE/RL journalists and allow them to do their jobs.”

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