HAMBURG, Germany -- A top U.S. State Department official has decried the treatment of RFE/RL journalists in Turkmenistan, where one contributor faces a potential prison sentence for possessing chewing tobacco.
In the latest in a string of cases involving journalists in the authoritarian former Soviet republic, RFE/RL contributor Khudayberdy Allashov was apprehended in Turkmenistan's northern Dashoguz Province on December 3, when police officers entered his house, beat him, and rounded up his family.
"I think that the treatment that a number of RFE[/RL] journalists [have encountered] in the past couple of years -- whether through harassment, or detention and harassment, or mistreatment while under detention -- is absolutely unacceptable," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal told RFE/RL on December 8.
Allashov, along with his mother, was charged with possessing chewing tobacco, which, while illegal in Turkmenistan, is commonly consumed and not known to have led to arrests in the past.
Allashov's wife was told that he had confessed to possessing 11 kilograms of the product and could expect to be sentenced to seven years in prison. She believes that, if he confessed, it was under duress.
"Turkmenistan has an obligation to meet the obligations under international law, under the international declaration of human rights, and under their own constitution to protect and safeguard the human rights of all and to ensure that due process is followed," Biswal told RFE/RL in the interview in Hamburg, Germany, where officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were meeting.
The OSCE on December 6 called on the authorities in Turkmenistan to "immediately" release Allashov.
Allashov's arrest follows several cases involving RFE/RL journalists in recent months, which Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE's media freedom representative, has previously raised with the Turkmen authorities.
In October Soltan Achilova, an RFE/RL correspondent, was physically attacked, while threats to enforce a suspended jail sentence against another RFE/RL correspondent, Rovshan Yazmukhamedov, were made in November.
Last year, another RFE/RL contributor, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, was sentenced to three years in prison for illegal drug possession.
Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated countries in the world, ruled by a repressive government that tolerates no dissent, routinely jails government critics or puts them in psychiatric hospitals, and allows no independent media.