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RFE/RL Turkmen Journalist Marks Two Years Behind Bars

Imprisoned RFE/RL freelance correspondent Saparmamed Nepeskuliev
Imprisoned RFE/RL freelance correspondent Saparmamed Nepeskuliev

WASHINGTON -- Turkmen journalist Saparmamed Nepeskuliev disappeared two years ago this week, and remains in a remote prison serving a three-year sentence on charges that human rights groups and a U.N. panel have denounced as politically motivated.

“Saparmamed is being punished for his journalism,” said Thomas Kent, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). “He was convicted without a lawyer or public trial on charges that we believe are entirely fabricated, and he should be released immediately.”

Nepeskuliev disappeared on July 7, 2015 in the Caspian Sea resort city of Avaza, and was held incommunicado before a Turkmen court, in a closed session on August 31, 2015, found him guilty of narcotics charges that rights groups say were “trumped up” in retaliation for his reporting.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention designated Nepeskuliev’s detention as “arbitrary” in December 2015, declaring that “he has been deprived of liberty for having peacefully exercised his right to freedom of expression.” In July 2016, seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press, sent a letter to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov calling Nepeskuliev’s imprisonment “unlawful” and urging his immediate release. Thirteen media and human rights NGOs issued a collective protest against his imprisonment in June last year.

In his video reports for RFE/RL, Nepeskuliev documented decrepit infrastructure and economic inequality in Turkmenistan’s western region. His imprisonment appears to be part of a systematic campaign by the government to eviscerate RFE/RL’s local reporting network: no fewer than six correspondents left their jobs between 2014-2015 as a result of intimidation tactics targeting them and their family members.

In addition, veteran correspondent Soltan Achilova suffered three separate physical attacks in connection with her journalism in November, 2016. Contributor Rovshen Yazmuhamedov was threatened the same month with enforcement of a suspended jail term he received in 2013. After filing several video reports about local life in Turkmenistan’s northern Dashoguz province, correspondent Khudayberdy Allashov was taken into custody and severely beaten in December, 2016; he and his mother were subsequently imprisoned for three months on charges of possessing chewing tobacco, a product that is widely used in Turkmenistan and is not known to have led to any previous arrest.

The United States, the OSCE, and media advocacy organizations have expressed concern about Turkmenistan’s persecution of journalists.

Turkmenistan is ranked “not free” in Freedom House’s 2017 press freedom survey, scoring at the bottom of the scale with 98 points out of 100, on par with North Korea.

Because of political conditions, RFE/RL has no bureau inside Turkmenistan, instead working through a local network of contributors to provide the country’s only Turkmen-language alternative to state-controlled media. Its Turkmen Service website logged a monthly average of 440,000 visits and 800,000 page views in 2016, and it has 174,000 followers on Facebook.