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Rights Groups Press For Release of RFE/RL Turkmen Contributor

  • Ron Synovitz

Sazak Durdymuradov (right) receives a present from one of his students in this undated photo

Sazak Durdymuradov (right) receives a present from one of his students in this undated photo

International rights groups have stepped up their pressure on Turkmen authorities to immediately release an RFE/RL commentator who is being held against his will at a remote psychiatric hospital known as the Turkmen “Gulag.”

The fresh calls come amid growing coverage by international media of the unexplained detention and alleged torture of Sazak Durdymuradov.

Durdymuradov, a soft-spoken history teacher, had been working for two months as a nonpaid contributor to RFE/RL's Turkmenistan broadcasts when secret police seized him from his home on June 20.

According to information received by RFE/RL, Durdymuradov was severely beaten and tortured with electroshock after refusing to sign a letter pledging never again to take part in an RFE/RL broadcast. He was then transferred to a psychiatric hospital in the eastern region of Lebap, a facility notorious for holding critics of the Turkmen regime.

'Nothing Illegal'

International human rights groups, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have condemned his arrest and ill treatment.

"We call on the Turkmen authorities to free Sazak Durdymuradov because we think he is innocent," says Jeff Julliard, deputy director of the Paris-based RSF. "He only did his work as a journalist and nothing else. Nothing criminal. Nothing illegal. We are really worried about his situation. We think he is harassed. And his punitive hospitalization is totally unacceptable. So we ask the Turkmen authorities to release him."

Julliard says it was particularly rash of Turkmen authorities to detain Durdymuradov shortly before government officials engaged in talks in Ashgabat about human rights in Turkmenistan.

"We are shocked that this arrest happened just during the talks between Turkmen authorities and European Union leaders, because there was a very important meeting between Turkmenistan authorities and the European Union, especially about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan," Julliard said. "So we [also] call upon European Union leaders to strongly call for the release of Sazak Durdymuradov."

Ranked At Bottom

Julliard says Durdymuradov's case is the latest in a series of rights abuses that has led RSF to rank Turkmenistan 167th out of 169 countries on its World Press Freedom Index.

"There is no freedom at all in Turkmenistan for journalists, of course, nor for anybody," Julliard said. "There is no respect for human rights. It is one of the most closed countries in the world. Press freedom has not grown there at all. Freedom of expression, freedom of association -- none of the human rights are respected. So it is one of the most worrying countries for all of the organizations that defend human rights around the world."

Julliard also says such cases have led RSF to put Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on the organization's list of so-called "Press Freedom Predators" and "Internet Enemies."

"We don't understand this kind of reaction. But we have the feeling that Turkmen authorities, for many years now, really don't care about their image abroad because they know that they have a very bad image in the world -- that they are considered one of the strongest dictatorships in the world," Julliard said. "I don't know [why] they react this way -- if they really don't care or if they still want to control information so much to avoid these kinds of critics. We think that now, in 2008, the new leaders of Turkmenistan -- and certainly the new president -- should understand that they cannot react like this. [Berdymukhammedov] always will be isolated in the world and he cannot help his people -- he cannot help his country -- if he continues to have this kind of behavior."

Nurmuhammed Hanamov, the exiled leader of Turkmenistan's opposition Republican Party, tells RFE/RL from Vienna that the treatment of Durdymuradov shows that Turkmenistan has not made any progress on human rights since the death of President Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006.

"Just as it was during Niyazov's time, [Durdymuradov's case] shows that there has been no advancement on freedom of speech or free media. Once again, this case confirms that there have not been any [positive] changes," Hanamov said.

Viacheslav Mamedov is a former activist for the rights of ethnic minorities in Turkmenistan who fled the country in 2004 after becoming a target of crackdowns by Turkmen authorities. Before he fled into exile, Mamedov had been interrogated by the secret police and jailed for visiting the Ashgabat office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

'Demonstrated Their True Face'

Authorities accused Mamedov of giving the OSCE a "political document" and banned him from traveling to the capital to meet with foreigners without first informing them.

"We think that [with the case of Durdymuradov], the authorities [in Turkmenistan have] demonstrated their true face -- the face they have tried to hide during the last year and a half to two years, while trying to create the image of liberal and democratic reforms that have never existed in reality," Mamedov said.

The U.S. State Department also has expressed concerns about Durdymuradov's case, saying on June 28 that it was "deeply troubled" by his detention and physical abuse. Spokesman Tom Casey said "any attempt to threaten journalists is an unacceptable affront to human rights."

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report