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U.S. Senators Appeal To Turkmenistan In Case Of Jailed RFE/RL Correspondent

Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev

Four senior U.S. senators, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have written to Turkmenistan's ambassador in Washington to express "concern" over the case of jailed RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev.

Yazkuliyev, a correspondent for Radio Azatlyk, RFE/RL's Turkmen-language service, was sentenced to five years in prison last week in what his supporters describe as punishment for his reporting.

The four senators who sent the letter are Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts), committee members Richard Durbin (Democrat-Illinois) and Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (Democrat, New York). Cardin is also co-chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

The letter was sent on October 12 to Meret Orazov, Ashgabat's envoy to Washington, and calls on the Turkmen government to "investigate the allegations that Mr. Yazkuliyev did not receive a fair trial and take steps to ensure that that he receives a fair hearing and is accorded due process."

Yazkuliyev was detained on September 27 in Turkmenistan's Akhal province on charges of "influencing or abetting" an attempted suicide by a family member.

Yazkuliyev's relatives sent a written appeal to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and the country's head prosecutor in an attempt to retract false statements against him that they said they had been forced to make by secret police.

They have said the case is an effort to intimidate Yazkuliyev for his journalism activities and that they have "sufficient documentation to prove that [Yazkuliyev's] case is politically motivated."

His October 5 trial was held after business hours, behind closed doors, and without his lawyer present.

After his sentence was handed down, U.S. Representative Howard Berman (Democrat, California), the most senior Democrat on the House Committee On Foreign Affairs, told RFE/RL that Yazkuliyev's conviction was an example of something "would not be tolerated" in a free society.

"I think the government of Turkmenistan has to understand that the people of Turkmenistan are entitled to freedom of expression and that for Turkmenistan to evolve into a truly just country, they have to develop democratic governance, respect different opinions, ensure freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. I have written the president of Turkmenistan six or seven months ago about this issue, apparently to no avail. The government seems to be [pursuing] the same kind of harassment and criminalization of conduct that in a free society would not be tolerated."

RFE/RL President Steven Korn has called the case "an outrage."

"This was a bogus trial and a predatory sentence that shows that Turkmenistan authorities respect no law and no standards when it comes to their treatment of the media. RFE/RL protests the sentence vigorously and calls on others in the international community to condemn it as well," he said.

Yazkuliyev was one of the first journalists in Turkmenistan to cover deadly explosions at a weapons depot at Abadan in July, which official media initially ignored and then downplayed as a minor incident.

He was summoned by security officials and warned about his reporting on the incident.

Turkmenistan is consistently ranked by watchdog groups as one of the world's most egregious violators of press freedom.

Press freedom and human rights organizations, including Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Freedom House, have said Yazkuliyev's sentence is in retaliation for his reporting.

The letter from the U.S. senators says Yazkuliyev's case "adds to that of several other political prisoners of longstanding concern, including the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation's Annakurban Amanklychev, Sapardurdy Khadzhiev, and civic activist Gulgeldy Annaniyazov."

The Turkmen Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2006, RFE/RL Turkmen correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova was tortured to death in a Turkmen prison shortly after her arrest, prompting international demands for an investigation that never took place.

written by Richard Solash in Washington with additional reporting by Muhammad Tahir

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