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Turkmenistan: RFE/RL Journalists Given 15-Day Sentence

Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (file photo) (Courtesy Photo) For eight days nothing has been known about the whereabouts of two RFE/RL correspondents in Turkmenistan, Meret Khommadov and Jumadurdy Ovezov. Nor was it known why or exactly where they were arrested by Turkmen authorities. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has now been able to shed light on their arrest and their sentence. Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service spoke with Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE's Representative on Freedom of the Media.

RFE/RL: Two of our correspondents have been in detention in Turkmenistan for eight days. Neither we nor their families know exactly where they are. What is your response to this situation?

Haraszti: The way my office was informed about these two arrests was the news from RFE/RL and the petitions of international human rights organizations worrying about the fate of these two RFE/RL journalists. So, right after we got the news, I contacted the Turkmen authorities and they informed me about the following:

They said that on March 7 there was a town-hall meeting with elderly people in the Vekilbazar region of Mary Province to the issue of preparations for the next people's council meeting. And the two persons that RFE mentions [Meret Khommadov and Jumadurdy Ovezov] were there at that meeting. According to the testimonies of people present, they behaved in a hooliganistic way, disrupting the meeting, shouting at officials, cursing at elderly people. That's the official description of what happened. And there were written claims against them filed by one of those elderly people.

According to this information, the two have been sentenced by an administrative court under Chapter 168 [of Turkmenistan's civil code] to 15 days of public or community work, and these people were not taken into custody based on their being journalists but on their alleged behavior.

What I did was that I asked the authorities to take note of the fact that our office considers that [the] Helsinki [Accords on human rights and fundamental freedoms] secured the right to correspond with the press, including the international press, regardless of their previous training, whether they were qualified as journalists by a relevant school or not. This is a civilian right and a civilian activity and it is free under Helsinki commitments. And I asked them to inform us after the 10 days that seemed to remain of their punishment and to make sure that they are accessible for public comment to the international community and whoever is interested. And, of course, we regretted that they didn't seem to have been accessible to family members or to outside people at the very beginning of this whole process.

So, this is what happened. And I hope we will know more after 10 days.

RFE/RL: In this point do you know -- or did the Turkmen authorities tell you -- in which place, in which area, the two are being kept?

Haraszti: No, my information does not extend to the place of detention. Public work was mentioned and that is all the information I have. The place of the alleged incident is mentioned in my information, which is the Vekilbazar region of Mary province.

RFE/RL: So, my understanding is that they will be kept in detention for 15 days.

Haraszti: Which would be, altogether, 10 more days. I asked [the Turkmen authorities] to make sure that these people are accessible at least after those 10 days, but I also mentioned that is regrettable that they were not accessible during this whole process.

Committee To Protect Journalists

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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