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Ogulsapar Muradova: After 15 Years, Still No Probe Of Turkmen Journalist's Death In Custody

Journalist Ogulsapar Muradova at her son's wedding party in Ashgabat in 2002.
Journalist Ogulsapar Muradova at her son's wedding party in Ashgabat in 2002.

RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova was one of the few journalists in Turkmenistan who dared to report about human rights abuses in the secretive, authoritarian state.

Muradova paid the ultimate price for her work. She was arrested on trumped up charges on June 18, 2006. Amid allegations and signs that she was tortured while in custody, she died in prison three months later at the age of 58 in September 2016.

Turkmenistan has never conducted an effective investigation into Muradova's death.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) has said that Turkmen authorities were responsible, and the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has vowed to continue its campaign to bring those involved in her death to justice.

Muradova had joined RFE/RL's Turkmen Service as an Ashgabat correspondent in 2006.

She filed reports about the hardships ordinary people faced in the energy-rich Central Asian country.

She also worked for the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF), a Europe-based independent organization that monitors and reports on Turkmenistan's human rights abuses.

Muradova was arrested along with two other activists -- her brother Sapardurdy Khajiev and journalist Annakurban Amanklychev -- as well as her three children. Her children were released two weeks later.

Muradova, Khajiev, and Amanklychev were initially accused of espionage. But at a closed trial on August 25, 2006, they were sentenced to up to seven years in prison on charges of illegally possessing ammunition.

Rights groups have condemned the charges as a baseless, politically motivated ploy to punish the trio for their work.

A memorial to slain journalists in Bayeux, France, which includes the name of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. (file photo)
A memorial to slain journalists in Bayeux, France, which includes the name of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. (file photo)

Amanklychev and Khajiev went on to serve their full sentences. But Muradova's family learned on September 13 that she had died in prison. Her body was returned to the family the following day.

Turkmen officials first claimed Muradova had committed suicide. Later, they changed their story and said she had died from natural causes.

But relatives of Muradova who saw her body say there was a deep wound on her forehead and a dark mark around her neck that could be consistent with strangling.

They also said open wounds and bruises on her hands and legs suggested she'd been tortured.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Turkmen law-enforcement official said in late in 2006 that Muradova died from torture at the hands of National Security Ministry officers who interrogated her.

Muradova had been kept incommunicado after her trial and her family didn't even know where she was being held.

It wasn't until 10 years later, in December 2016, that the government revealed Muradova died in Owadan-depe Prison, a remote maximum-security facility in the Karakum Desert.

Owadan-depe Prison is where Turkmen authorities hold political prisoners and those arrested on religious extremism charges.

Nothing Has Changed

In a landmark announcement in 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) held that the government in Ashgabat was responsible for Muradova's death.

The OHCHR said Muradova had been "arbitrarily detained" because of her journalistic and human rights activities.

It accused Turkmenistan's government of failing to conduct an effective investigation into the allegations of torture and her death in custody.

The OHCHR urged Ashgabat to launch a prompt and impartial investigation. It also ordered Ashgabat to provide Muradova's family with a full account of its investigation -- including her autopsy report, copies of trial transcripts, and court verdicts.

Nevertheless, there still has never been a probe by Turkmen authorities into what happened to Muradova while she was in their custody.

Meanwhile, little has changed regarding the Turkmen government's treatment of journalists and human rights activists.

Ashgabat continues to clamp down on its critics, stifle free speech, and severely restrict people's rights and freedoms.

Rachel Denber
Rachel Denber

Fifteen years on, "correspondents for RFE/RL and other [independent] publications have to work at a great risk for themselves and their families," says Rachel Denber, HRW's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.

"We still see the government putting pressure on the journalists' relatives in an attempt to silence them or force them to abandon their work," Denber told RFE/RL.

Denber said HRW remains committed to seeking justice for Muradova.

"I would like to tell [Muradova's children] that we haven't forgotten their mother, and we haven't forgotten them," Denber said. "We will continue to fight to bring to justice those who were responsible for Muradova's death."

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service