Turkmen student activist Omurzak Omarkuliev has not been heard from since he was arrested by authorities in Ashgabat in March 2018 and disappeared within the country's prison system.
During the past year, Omarkuliev has become an international cause celebre whose case exemplifies the plight of hundreds of people who've vanished in Turkmen jails after being arrested on what rights activists say are often trumped-up charges aimed at silencing political dissent.
This week, after Omarkuliev’s story was highlighted on September 16 by the Prove They Are Alive! campaign at the OSCE's human rights conference in Warsaw, the missing student activist resurfaced in a YouTube video by Dovletmurat Yazkuliev -- a Turkmen journalist who proclaims he is “independent” but is known to have worked with state security agents to make pro-government videos.
Yazkuliev’s latest video claims that reports about Omarkuliev’s disappearance in prison, as well as the death of his father from a heart attack upon learning of his son’s 20-year sentence, are all “fake news.”
Instead, Yazkuliev claims Omarkuliev has been “serving his duty to his motherland for the last 17 months” as a soldier in Turkmenistan’s army.
Yazkuliev also claims Omarkuliev was unaware that the European Union, the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and international human rights groups have been demanding information from Ashgabat about his whereabouts for more than a year.
Omarkuliev never speaks in the video. In fact, he only looks directly into the camera once -- staring into the distance the rest of the time with steely eyes and a fixed expression on his face.
One short camera shot purportedly shows the military base where Omarkuliev is said to be serving. But the blurred image only shows about a dozen uniformed men standing at attention outside a building beneath Turkmenistan’s flag.
Omarkuliev cannot be identified as one of the men in the group.
Closer examination of the brief video image reveals it is just over one second long and has been looped to lengthen its time on screen. The silhouette of a man walking among trees in the background flips back and repeats itself four times within six seconds.
The video then cuts to close-up shots of Omarkuliev standing by himself at attention and, at another location, petting a dog tied to a leash.
Omarkuliev is shown using a weightlifting machine purportedly set up in a workout room for soldiers.
But the brand-new equipment appears to be a prop set up so hastily that protective plastic from its shipping container has not been removed.
Other shots show Omarkuliev in clearly staged situations as he eats in a mess hall and watches a Turkmen music video with other uniformed men.
Yazkuliev then attempts to refute reports confirmed by RFE/RL and international human rights groups that Omarkuliev’s father, Shirinbai Omarkuliev, died of a heart attack after learning about his son’s lengthy prison sentence.
Yazkuliev is seen talking with a man that resembles Omarkuliev’s father, but who has moles on his nose and face that are not seen in photographs of Shirinbai Omarkuliev taken before 2018. That man also is never heard speaking.
Omurzak Omarkuliev’s mother does not appear in the video. But his wife is shown holding photographs of the family.
RFE/RL was unable to contact any of the disappeared civic activist’s relatives to comment on the claims made by Yazkuliev in the video.
Yazkuliev told RFE/RL on September 20 that he “went to the appropriate agencies and got permission” to film Omarkuliev after he was “approached by Omarkuliev’s father” about making a video to refute the reports about his death.
But Yazkuliev refused to tell RFE/RL when he made his video or the military unit or region in which Omarkuliev purportedly is serving. He said that the information is “a state secret.”
When asked to comment on reports confirmed by RFE/RL that Yazkuliev has recently worked with Turkmenistan’s state security services to produce pro-government videos, Yazkuliev became very angry.
He insisted that he is a “well-known independent journalist” in Turkmenistan who has never worked with state agents.
But international rights groups say independent journalists are not allowed to operate in Turkmenistan, where every facet of society is tightly controlled by authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and state media perpetuates his cult of personality on an almost daily basis.
They say truly independent Turkmen journalists are forced to work from outside the country. In Freedom House’s index on basic freedoms, Turkmenistan is rated worse than North Korea and only ahead of Syria.
In fact, Yazkuliev himself was arrested in Turkmenistan in 2011 when he was working as a correspondent for RFE/RL after he reported about an explosion at an ammunition depot near Ashgabat. He was formally charged with encouraging the suicide of his sister-in-law.
But Yazkuliev was released with a presidential pardon from Berdymukhammedov in late 2011 after four U.S. senators, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed “concern” about his case and urged that due process be respected.
In September 2012, while still employed as an RFE/RL correspondent, Human Rights Watch awarded Yazkuliev a prestigious grant for journalists who are persecuted for their work.
But after receiving that award, Yazkuliev accepted a job as a “literature researcher” at Turkmenistan’s state-funded Academy of Sciences and began producing pro-government videos.
His videos have accused his former colleagues in RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service and journalists who run independent Turkmen websites from outside the country of being “criminals” and “traitors.”
Yazkuliev sought to be rehired by RFE/RL as an Ashgabat-based freelance correspondent in early 2019. But he was turned down on grounds that his pro-Berdymukhammedov videos have irreparably damaged his journalistic credibility.
Speaking to RFE/RL on September 20, Yazkuliev insisted that Turkmenistan’s government is doing everything it can to make citizens happy and that all of RFE/RL’s reports about problems in the country are “fake news.”
Lured To Return
Before Omarkuliev was arrested in Ashgabat, he was a student at a university in Turkey where he organized an association for other Turkmen students.
Omarkuliev told RFE/RL in January 2018 that the Turkmen Embassy in Ankara had expressed interest in supporting his student association.
In February 2018, Omarkuliev was invited by Turkmenistan’s Central Election Commission to return to his homeland and attend an event ahead of the country’s March 2018 parliamentary elections.
He told RFE/RL he was excited and optimistic about having a chance to help develop democracy in his homeland.
But when he tried to return to Turkey on February 22, 2018, Turkmen border officials refused to let him board his flight. They did not give a reason.
Over the next two weeks, Omarkuliev spoke about his plight to RFE/RL and wrote about his dilemma on independent Turkmen websites run from abroad -- including websites that are critical of Berdymukhammedov.
He was last heard from on March 9, 2018, when he spoke to RFE/RL just before he was arrested and tried behind closed doors on charges that have never been publicly revealed.
In early 2019, RFE/RL learned that Turkmenistan’s government had informed the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat that Omarkuliev was serving in the country’s military and his whereabouts were a matter of Turkmenistan’s internal affairs.
But Turkmen Defense Ministry sources at the time also told RFE/RL that the ministry had no record of any person named Omurzak Omarkuliev serving in its armed forces.
Vitaly Ponomarev, Central Asia program director for the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial and a key figure in the Prove They Are Alive! campaign, told RFE/RL that the claims about Omarkuliev’s military service were dubious, considering he has been a cause celebre for more than a year on the issue of “systemic” enforced disappearances in Turkmenistan.
“It’s very strange that the Turkmen government has seen the name of this person on our list of enforced disappearances but hasn’t answered any questions about this case in communications with human rights groups, the European Union, or with other international structures,” Ponomarev said.
Yuri Dzhibladze, a coordinator for the Prove They Are Alive! campaign and head of the Moscow-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, says Turkmenistan has a track record of “telling lies” about enforced disappearances.
“From the experience of the last several years, we know for sure that the Turkmen government regularly provides incomplete, misleading, or sometimes simply false information about the whereabouts of persons who’ve disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons,” Dzhibladze says.
“This happens at meetings of the OSCE or, for example, during the EU-Turkmenistan annual human rights dialogue, or at other international forums,” he said. “We even have written replies by Ashgabat to the UN Human Rights Committee where they directly contradict themselves.”
“On numerous occasions they have provided false information about visits by relatives [of disappeared prisoners]...or saying a person has been transferred from a prison colony to a ‘place of designated living,’ a euphemism they use for internal exile under police control,” Dzhibladze said.
Dzhibladze says the Prove They Are Alive! campaign must be “very meticulous” about its list of victims of enforced disappearances in Turkmenistan -- which was updated on September 16 at the OSCE Warsaw Conference to include the names of 121 individuals and a caveat that the real number of disappeared prisoners is thought to number at least in the hundreds.
When unsubstantiated or dubious claims about disappeared prisoners are made in Turkmenistan, Dzhibladze says the Prove They Are Alive! campaign simply notes that the information “has not been verified by independent sources.”
“This has been the case on so many occasions,” Dzhibladze said. “Of course, once in a while, there are provocations when the authorities dump information about someone allegedly having been seen outside of prison. They do not spread this disinformation through statements by government officials, but rather by faux nongovernmental organizations or by state-controlled journalists.”
Dzhibladze believes Yazkuliev’s September 18 YouTube video on Omarkuliev is part of a Turkmen disinformation campaign launched in response to calls at the OSCE’s Warsaw’s conference for international pressure over Ashgabat’s enforced disappearances.
“I’m not surprised at all that this video post has been published,” Dzhibladze told RFE/RL. “This is quite typical of the Turkmen authorities. All the features of this fake information campaign show the desire of the Turkmen authorities to shorten the list of its ‘disappeared’ and eventually make it irrelevant.”
“By all means, they are trying to make up stories about different personalities from this list allegedly being released from prison or having been visited by relatives,” he said.
Dzhibladze also balks at Yazkuliev’s claim of being a “well-known independent journalist,” saying that his reputation has been irreparably damaged by his pro-government videos and his denial of rights abuses by Berdymukhammedov’s authoritarian regime.
Dzhibladze says Yazkuliev is known within the international human rights community as “a GONGO -- a government-organized ‘nongovernmental organization,’ a fake NGO, a quasi-NGO.”
“He has tried in the past to apply for membership in an international NGO coalition that works with the OSCE and he was turned down because we know he is a GONGO,” Dzhibladze told RFE/RL. “He’s not from a real nongovernmental organization.”