Human Rights Watch: Free Rights Activist Immediately

Statement by Human Rights Watch

saparmamed1Fears for Saparmamed Nepeskuliev’s Health, Safety
(Berlin) – Turkmenistan authorities should immediately release a journalist who had been secretly detained for weeks on seemingly politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, about 35, has been denied contact with his lawyer and family members, placing him at grave risk.

“The alarming arrest and incommunicado detention of Saparmamed Nepeskuliev makes us profoundly concerned for his safety and well-being,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkmenistan has a long record of jailing journalists and government critics, bringing trumped-up charges, and mistreating detainees, so the sooner Nepeskuliev is released the better.”

Nepeskuliev works with the Turkmen language service of Radio Liberty and with Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN), a Netherlands-based independent human rights group. Published under a pseudonym, Nepeskuliev’s Radio Liberty photo reportage has covered such issues as water shortages; luxury villas for judges, security officials, and other civil servants; and delays in completing the construction of a hospital. For ATN, he reflected on such issues as the chaotic state of health care in Balkanabad, in Western Turkmenistan, where he lives.

Ruslan Myatiev, director of ATN, told Human Rights Watch that on July 7, 2015, Nepeskuliev was in the coastal city of Awaza to photograph an amusement park and other sites. His family last heard from him that day when he phoned to say he would be home at about 4 p.m. When he did not return, his family began searching everywhere for him, including police stations and the morgue, and eventually filed a missing persons report.

On July 28, a family member visited a prison facility in Akdash, about 30 kilometers east of Awaza. An official there confirmed that Nepeskuliev was in custody and that he would be charged and tried for unlawfully “possessing pills with narcotic substances.” The official refused to allow the relative to see Nepeskuliev.

Several years ago, Nepeskuliev was forcibly incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for two weeks following his single-man picket during a visit to Balkanabad by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Turkmenistan’s international partners, including the United States government, which funds Radio Liberty, should call on the Turkmen government to immediately release Nepeskuliev, Human Rights Watch said.

In the past four years, the Turkmen government harassed, jailed, and subjected to forced psychiatric treatment four other correspondents for Radio Liberty’s Turkmen language service. In June, Osmankuly Hallyev, who had done freelance work for Radio Liberty since 2006, said he had been “interrogated by officials with the country’s anti-terrorism team, pressed to reveal his sources, and publicly denounced by local authorities and community leaders.”

In 2013, police arrested Rovshen Yazmuhamedov, a local Radio Liberty correspondent who reported on social issues and whom authorities questioned after his articles generated online reader responses. After two weeks of international pressure, the authorities released him. In October 2011, a Turkmen court sentenced another Radio Liberty contributor, Dovletmurad Yazkuliyev, to five years in prison on false charges of urging his sister-in-law to commit suicide. Soon after his sentencing, Yazkuliyev was released under a presidential amnesty. In March 2011, Turkmen authorities detained Amangelen Shapudakov, an 80-year-old contributor, and forcibly confined him in a psychiatric facility for 43 days.

Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, and does not allow media freedom, Human Rights Watch said. The government controls virtually all print and electronic media; Internet access remains heavily state-controlled; and many websites are blocked, including those of foreign news organizations.

“The Turkmen government tolerates no criticism and harshly punishes people who try to question government policies,” Denber said. “The photographs Nepeskuliev provided show some hard realities about life for ordinary people in Turkmenistan, and about the relative luxury some government officials enjoy. Nepeskuliev has the right to freedom of expression to show these images, whether it’s through Radio Liberty, ATN, or any other outlet. By throwing him in jail, the government is violating this right.”