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Qishloq Ovozi

Nepeskuliev was jailed for possession of “pills with narcotic substance.”

You are causing problems and you’re going to get into trouble. You are risking your future and the future of your family.”

Those words, or something similar, are common features when authorities in countries ruled by so-called “strongmen” confront local independent journalists and rights activists.

I’ve been working with RFE/RL for some 20 years and I’ve heard some of our correspondents in Central Asia recount such lectures. Officials, or security agents, or the police tell our correspondents they are traitors to their country, working, spreading lies for a foreign government. Some of our correspondents have been beaten, detained, or both, and one was killed in jail.

So when these representatives of the state strongly advise a change of employer or even profession it is understandable, to me certainly, that some choose to take that advice.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been experiencing a series of setbacks recently, more than is usual even in a country such as Turkmenistan.

The latest incident involves Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, 35, who works in Turkmenistan as a correspondent for Azatlyk and also with Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN). Nepeskuliev traveled from his hometown of Balkanabat to the coastal resort area of Avaza in early July to research future stories. He phoned his family July 7 from Avaza to tell them he was going out and would return later that day.

Instead, Nepeskuliev disappeared. Relatives contacted local authorities to report Nepeskuliev was missing; those officials at first said they had no knowledge of Nepeskuliev’s whereabouts.

Nepeskuliev’s family searched all the facilities where Nepeskuliev could conceivably be, even morgues. Finally, on July 28 his sister visited the prison in Akdash, some 30 kilometers from Avaza, and an official confirmed Nepeskuliev was there -- held on charges of illegal possession of “pills with narcotic substance.”

ATN contacted some of Nepeskuliev’s relatives who denied he could have been involved with illegal narcotics. Since the end of July, international rights organizations including Human Rights Watch (HRW), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and Amnesty International, and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic have released statements calling on Turkmen authorities to free Nepeskuliev or at least allow him access to a lawyer of his choice.

After the news broke Nepeskuliev had been found in jail, ATN again called the number of Nepeskuliev’s family and spoke with a person claiming to be Nepeskuliev’s sister who said Nepeskuliev was a “drug addict” who “regularly beat me and my mother.” ATN asked to speak with Nepeskuliev’s mother but the alleged “sister” said the mother had been taken to intensive care that morning. ATN said that since then, it has been unable to reach Nepeskuliev’s mother at her phone number.

Nepeskuliev has still not been formally charged with any crime.

Nepeskuliev’s troubles came on the heels of Azatlyk freelance contributor Osmankuly Hallyev’s encounters with Turkmen authorities.

Hallyev, who had worked with Azatlyk since 2006, suddenly resigned in early June “citing an unprecedented campaign of intimidation waged against him by the authorities.” Hallyev’s decision came after he was summoned to the office of the chief of the Garashsyzlyk district in the western Lebap Province, where he was “publicly denounced by local authorities and community leaders."

Hallyev resumed work for Azatlyk at the start of July, saying harassment had not stopped despite his resignation and that if he and his family would be under pressure regardless, he would rather do his job.

Turkmen officials rarely comment on such incidents except possibly to say Western media have not got its facts straight.

However, now there is something new. A website that recently appeared, Gundogar-news.com -- not to be confused with the Turkmen opposition website Gundogar.org, which has been posting articles for some 15 years -- offers a different version of recent events.

This new Gundogar site wrote on August 1 that Nepeskuliev worked “secretly” for Azatlyk and ATN. The report casts doubt on ATN editor Ruslan Myatiev’s competence, calling him a “young journalist with not more than 3-4 years experience.”

The report then features a statement from Ashirkuly Bayryev, a former Azatlyk correspondent who received the David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award in 2010, while he was working for Azatlyk.

Before delving into the words attributed to Bayryev, I remind everyone what I said at the beginning of this article about intimidation. I do not know what Bayryev’s motivations were for making these comments. Perhaps they are sincere, perhaps not.

Bayryev is quoted as saying that HRW, Amnesty International, and RSF “discredit rights defense movements and civic activists’ institutions” by jumping to conclusions based on the accusations of ATN. He refers to Nepeskuliev’s purported claim that after "he demanded his personal rights" several years ago, he was forced into a psychiatric hospital, dismissing such an allegation on the grounds that “in [Turkmenistan] every day someone is insisting on their personal rights in courts, in arbitration, with law enforcement agencies…this is a normal process in the everyday life of any country.”

“I have never encountered [a situation where] our [law enforcement] organs, moreover the special services, incarcerated someone in a psychiatric hospital -- [that’s laughable],” he is quoted as saying.

Bayryev then is quoted as saying that in his opinion Nepeskuliev, “for money,” worked for ATN “and possibly for Azatlyk” as a cover “so as not to arouse the interest of law enforcement bodies” in his drug trafficking business.

I would have to call such an assumption ludicrous, since working for Azatlyk is generally cause for attracting the attention, or better said the scrutiny, of Turkmen law enforcement bodies.

I don’t like to contradict Bayryev but I’m far from being the only person to know something about Turkmenistan and no one I know or can think of would believe working for Azatlyk is a good cover for drug dealing in Turkmenistan.

It is not absolutely clear who sponsors the Gundogar-news.com website, but looking at the site’s content it’s fair to assume it is a pro-Turkmen government creation.

Azatlyk has reported this year on authorities ordering the removal of satellite dishes and on the demolition of homes in and around Ashgabat. Gundogar-news.com presented its own video reports about these topics.

In the video about satellite dishes, another former Azatlyk correspondent, Dovletmurad Yazkuliev, defends the decision to take down the dishes. In October 2011, Yazkuliev, an Azatlyk contributor at the time, was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of urging his sister-in-law to commit suicide. He was subsequently released under a presidential amnesty, and shortly afterward took a position with a state institution where he remains to this day.

Yazkuliev’s video “report” is mixed with images of numerous dishes obscuring the facades and rooftops of buildings in Ashgabat. He criticizes international rights organizations for their complaints to the Turkmen government about the forced dish removals but does not mention why so many people would be interested in having satellite dishes when the government is offering its own cable television package.

The video report about the demolition of homes rejects reports by Azatlyk and others that residents are being evicted from their homes, which are then razed, and that authorities are not offering any compensation. Bayryev appears in this video criticizing foreign nongovernmental organizations and media outlets for spreading information that is “not objective.” Bayryev claims evicted homeowners are given newly constructed dwellings and while the report shows construction and even a new neighborhood, conspicuously absent from the video are any interviews with the residents of these new homes.

The reason Azatlyk is being targeted seems clear enough. Azatlyk attracts 335,500 monthly visits to its web and mobile sites, and has more than 113,500 followers on Facebook.”

Azatlyk’s growing popularity comes at a time when Turkmenistan is experiencing unprecedented security problems along its border with Afghanistan and is just beginning to feel the effects of the country’s dependence on natural gas exports for revenue.

As our intern (and Qishloq resident) Bradley Jardine wrote, "With uncertainty growing inside the country, Azatlyk’s reports are more important than ever before. And that’s exactly what the ruling elites are afraid of."

Turkmen authorities have worked zealously since independence to prevent such information from reaching the Turkmen public, so the timing of this more intense than usual campaign seemingly targeting Azatlyk probably should not come as a surprise. Turkmen authorities have simply come up with some new twists to familiar repression.

Russian-built tanks roll under Tajik flags during Peace Mission 2012 joint counterterrorism military exercises of the troops from the six countries in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Khujand in June 2012.

There has been fierce fighting in northern Afghanistan for much of this year, and at times it has moved very close to the border with Central Asia. This has prompted great concern among the governments of Central Asia, particularly those directly bordering Afghanistan, and their unease increases with the knowledge that militants from Central Asia's domestic terrorist group -- the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) -- are among the enemy forces battling Afghan troops.

Some of the most vicious fighting has taken place in the Afghan provinces of Badakhshan and Kunduz, both of which border Tajikistan. This has led to speculation that if Afghanistan's problems cross into any Central Asian country it will be Tajikistan, with its mainly mountainous, 1,206-kilometer border with Afghanistan that faces the greatest threat of "spillover."

That risk to Tajikistan of Afghan spillover is probably not great, but it is real. Fortunately for Tajikistan, the three great world powers -- China, Russia, and the United States -- are taking this threat to Tajikistan very seriously, and their combined efforts arguably make Tajikistan the Central Asian state least likely to experience serious difficulties emanating from Afghanistan.

The latest example was July 8, when the United States handed over some 80 all-terrain vehicles to Tajik security forces for use in patrolling remote, mountainous areas of the border with Afghanistan. The United States has been helping Tajikistan bolster its watch on the Afghan border for more than a decade by funding the construction of barracks for border guards and providing new uniforms and other nonlethal military equipment, of which the vehicles were only the latest contribution.

The United States was more generous toward Uzbekistan, sending that Central Asian country more than 300 mine-resistant armor-protected vehicles. The United States has already said it will provide unspecified military aid to Turkmenistan.

But it is Russia that has been making the largest contributions to Tajikistan's security.

Russian forces have been in Tajikistan since the 1890s. Russia's 201st Motor Rifle Division has been deployed in Tajikistan since the end of World War II, but the Russian military recently announced it was increasing the unit's strength from some 7,500 troops to 9,000.

Russia has also been rearming the 201st with state-of-the-art weapons, including advanced warplanes, attack helicopters, and unmanned drones. In 2012, Russia extended the lease on the three bases it uses in Tajikistan by 49 years.

The Russian military has been in increasingly close contact with its Tajik counterpart and has helped establish a three-layer-deep defense along the Afghan border. Any intruders who elude the Tajik border guards and their advisers from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) must then contend with two more lines of defense, and any of these troops would be able to call in warplanes from Russian bases inside Tajikistan for support.

The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has also been helping Tajikistan strengthen its border defenses; it regularly reminds Tajik authorities the CSTO stands ready to send troops if needed and can assemble a fighting force near the Afghan border within 72 hours.

Meanwhile, China has become the leading investor into the Central Asian states in recent years, and Tajikistan is no exception. China has also been helping Tajikistan's security forces for more than a decade, providing vehicles, uniforms, and military equipment.

During the past year, Chinese counternarcotics agents have also been participating in joint operations with their Tajik counterparts on Tajik territory. Those operations have led to seizures along the border of Afghanistan in the Ishkashim district of Tajikistan's eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region. Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China all meet in this part of world, but the Ishkashim district is located more than 200 kilometers west of the Chinese border.

All three of the big powers also provide training and conduct joint exercises with Tajik military and security forces.

That sort of combined focus from China, Russia, and the United States is absent in the other Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan, in particular, has resisted practically any outside help, and now it faces the greatest threat of all the Central Asian states from Afghan spillover. Cross-border raiders have killed at least six Turkmen soldiers in the Afghan border area since February 2014.

With Beijing, Moscow, and Washington working to ensure Tajikistan's security along the border with Afghanistan, there is little chance of anything more than temporary breaches of security.

However, the three cannot do much to guarantee Tajikistan's internal security. The Tajik government's recent moves to control the practice of Islam inside the country and marginalize opposition groups and figures are the real threat to stability in Tajikistan.

With contributions from Iskander Aliyev and Mirzo Salimov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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