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Qishloq Ovozi

Saparmamed Nepeskuliev

There are things that happen in life that you know in advance are going to happen, and when they do, knowing in advance does not lessen the shock, the outrage, or the disappointment.

Our correspondent in Turkmenistan, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, was detained on dubious narcotics charges in early July, held incommunicado for two months, and apparently was recently sentenced to three years in prison.

Nepeskuliev worked in southwestern Turkmenistan's Balkan Province and had reported about issues such as shortages of water and electricity and the lack of medical services in the province, as well as the luxurious homes some local officials built for themselves along Turkmenistan's Caspian Sea coast.

Reporting on such topics is risky in many countries, but in Turkmenistan it is guaranteed to bring trouble. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkmenistan near the bottom of its World Press Freedom Index, 178th out of 180 countries, followed by North Korea and Eritrea.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, spoke by telephone with Nepeskuliev's distraught mother, Raysina. Speaking from her home in the western city of Balkanbat, Raysina said that her daughter -- Nepeskuliev's sister -- had learned of his trial and conviction.

She continues to deny her son had any involvement with narcotics and says authorities have been entirely uncooperative in helping learn about her son's situation.

Reporters Without Borders issued a statement about Nepeskuliev on September 8 that asked: "Where exactly is Nepeskuliev now? Has he had a lawyer?"

In the statement, Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said, "The continuing silence from the authorities about Saparmamed Nepeskuliev's fate is completely illegal."

Bihr said, "The silence is a nightmare for his family and increases our concern about his safety," and added, "We yet again call on the authorities, as a matter of urgency, to provide full details about his current status and his possible conviction, and to free him without delay."

In August, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal told Azatlyk that U.S. officials had raised the issue of Nepeskuliev's detention with Turkmen officials. Apparently that had no effect on the outcome of Nepeskuliev's case.

It's not surprising. It's the way in Turkmenistan (and in Uzbekistan, too). There are people the Turkmen government perceives as enemies, troublemakers -- and authorities move against them quickly and decisively. In their system, being detained for a crime means being guilty. The trial is a formality, lip service to a judicial process that in fact does not exist.

There was only way Nepeskuliev's case was going to end -- exactly the way it did.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir and Toymyrat Bugayev of the Azatlyk contributed to this report
A composite picture of two women in Ferghana Province, whom Uzbek authorities said were armed and dangerous. But did they even exist?

Depending on Uzbekistan's official sources for information about what is happening in the country has always presented a challenge. Uzbek officials and state media have a predictable habit of magnifying the positive and giving the negative cursory treatment, if the latter is mentioned at all. Often one is left with more questions than answers.

Such sources have provided information on two security incidents of late that raise a number of questions.

The most recent was the explosion in downtown Tashkent on September 4. The blast happened at a bus stop in the "old town" area of the Uzbek capital, across the street from a mosque at 1:30 in the afternoon, just after Friday Prayers.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, heard about the explosion shortly after it happened and contacted police in Tashkent. The police said a homemade bomb had exploded, no one was injured, and police were searching for a man witnesses had seen leaving something by the bus stop and quickly departing the area.

Later in the day, Uzbek officials came forward with the official version. Yes, a bomb did explode in the middle of the day, in the middle of the city, but it was a security exercise.

The Uzbek news site provided a statement from the Interior Ministry that same day. The ministry's press service said, "At 1332 hours, a mock terrorist set off a homemade explosive at a bus stop near a mosque. Then, following an 'alarm' command, the city police forces were put on alert and the incident area was cordoned off, as prescribed by intradepartmental instructions."

The statement continued, "The training scenario was designed to make the exercise as close to a real situation as possible, and an important part was to test the vigilance and responsiveness of other rapid response services of Tashkent, specifically firefighters, the Emergency Ministry and the ambulance service."

None of the emergency services responding to the "alarm" knew it was a drill. The public, of course, did not know either.

While the Interior Ministry's statement provided those details about the exercise, there was no mention of precautions taken to ensure public safety during this fake bombing. There were real bombings in Tashkent in February 1999 and in late March-early April 2004 and people were killed and wounded.

Also, there was no mention of how much explosive was used in the homemade bomb or how it was detonated.

It seems the exercise was a success, since they caught the "terrorist" in a neighboring district 15 minutes after the explosion.

'Women With Suicide Belts'

The other recent incident involves two women in the Rishtan district of Uzbekistan's eastern Ferghana Province. It started on August 16 after Ozodlik's sources in Uzbek law enforcement agencies said two women had been seen wearing suicide belts and in possession of a pistol with a silencer and hand grenade.

Authorities reportedly learned of the weapons and explosives from the testimony of residents in two separate villages of the district. One woman in the village of Kalaynov said the two armed women broke into her house but fled when the homeowner started screaming. Later the two suspects were said to have broken into another woman's home in the village of Oq Yar and robbed the homeowner.

Based on this, authorities initiated a security sweep of the district that involved some 200 policemen. They described the women as being about 35 years old and one "looked Turkish" while the other was Uzbek. Facial composites of the two were posted around the area and the public was urged to contact authorities immediately if anyone saw the women.

After searching for some time without any result, police concluded the two had fled across the border into Kyrgyzstan.

The two women not only vanished from Uzbekistan, they vanished from the news. There have not been any follow-up reports about Uzbek authorities calling on Kyrgyzstan's law-enforcement agencies to seek out and apprehend these two women. There also have not been reports of any continuing search or leads in the case, or of where the two women might have come from or what their motives might have been.

When the episode with the two vanishing women started, I spoke with my colleagues in Ozodlik and a couple of them questioned whether there really were two women with suicide belts. The Ferghana Valley is densely populated, but on the village level everyone knows everyone else in the area. Strangers would be noticed. And eluding Uzbek security forces when they are actively hunting someone is no easy feat.

Based on reporting by Ozodlik with contributions from Farruh Yusupov of Ozodlik

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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.