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Freed Turkmen Teacher Vows To Keep Working For RFE/RL

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova

Sazak Durdymuradov in the classroom in an undated photo

Sazak Durdymuradov in the classroom in an undated photo

Sazak Durdymuradov, a frequent unpaid contributor to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, has said he intends to keep working for RFE/RL, despite enduring two harrowing weeks in detention because of his work.

Durdymuradov, a 59-year-old history teacher, was released on July 4 after being held at a notorious psychiatric clinic known as the “Turkmen Gulag.”

He believes he was released as a result of the wave of international pressure placed on Turkmen authorities. International rights groups such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists as well as the United States and EU had called on Ashgabat to release the teacher.

Speaking to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service in his first interview since being freed, Durdymuradov said Turkmen security officials set him free on the condition that he “spread the truth” about Turkmenistan.

“A [security service] officer told me: ‘The whole world knows about you and is watching your [case], that’s why you must tell the truth. Go and tell the world whether you were tortured or not,’" Durdymuradov said. "I said I had not been tortured physically but there was a lot of moral pressure. A normal person was put in the psychiatric clinic. That damaged me.”

Before Durdymuradov's release, his relatives reported that he told his wife that he was severely beaten in detention and tortured with electroshock after refusing to sign a letter pledging never again to take part in an RFE/RL broadcast.

Detained And Dismissed

Durdymuradov was seized on June 20 at his home in Baharden, some 200 kilometers west of the capital Ashgabat, four days before a meeting on the country’s human rights record between Turkmen and EU officials in Ashgabat.

He was initially detained in Bezmein near Ashgabat before being moved to the psychiatric clinic in remote Lebap Province, some 700 kilometers east of Ashgabat.

“There were some 30 to 40 mentally ill people in the room where I was thrown," Durdymuradov said of the Bezmein psychiatric ward. "As I was thrown in there, no one watched what was happening there. I did not sleep. If I’d fallen asleep, anything could have happened to me. They were mentally ill people, they did not sleep day or night. I was afraid.... If I’d have stayed three or four more days with them, I’d have become like them.”

Durdymuradov now faces new challenges. The school where he taught history fired him on June 20 -- the day of his arrest. Now, Durdymuradov, his wife, and three grown-up children have to survive on the salary of his younger daughter, who makes about $65 a month.

Durdymuradov, who has been an unpaid contributor to RFE/RL for several months, says he will continue collaborating with the station despite the threats and pressure he faced in detention.

He adds that officers of the Turkmen Ministry for National Security (MNS) initially wanted to force him to sign a written promise to stop contributing to RFE/RL. But before setting him free, they told Durdymuradov to provide only “correct information” in his radio interviews.

“Undoubtedly, I will continue to collaborate with you," Durdymuradov told RFE/RL's Turkmen Servce. "An MNS officer talked to me and told me: ‘You can collaborate [with RFE/RL] without problems. But don’t slander. Don’t give false information to people. There won’t be problems if you give correct information.’ They promised me so. I can openly say it.”

Pressure On Ashgabat

International organizations and foreign governments welcomed Durdymuradov’s release.

Reporters Without Borders said on July 7 that it was “relieved” to learn that Durdymuradov is back home with his family. The Paris-based media watchdog also called on Turkmen authorities to abandon their “barbaric methods” of confining government critics in psychiatric institutions and mistreating them.

The U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat said on July 8 that it welcomed Durdymuradov's release and his return to his family.

“We encourage the Government of Turkmenistan to adhere to its international human rights obligations as enshrined in the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the embassy statement said.

Durdymuradov is not the first RFE/RL contributor in Turkmenistan to face pressure from the authorities. RFE/RL journalists have also been denied accreditation, deprived of Internet and telephone connections, placed under surveillance, and prohibited from visiting family members abroad.

In 2006, 58-year-old Ogulsapar Muradova, a human rights activist and former RFE/RL correspondent, died while in Turkmen custody, apparently from mistreatment. No one has been charged or brought to account for her death.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service correspondent Rozynazar Khudaiberdiev contributed to this report