New York, June 26, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the abduction, torture, and forcible psychiatric hospitalization of Sazak Durdymuradov, a contributing reporter for the Turkmen Service of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), in the Western city of Bakhaden.
According to RFE/RL, Durdymuradov was seized by agents of the secret police (MNB) from his Bakhaden home on June 20 and forcibly taken to a local psychiatric clinic, then shuttled to an MNB station where he was severely beaten, tortured with electroshock, and pressured to sign a letter that said he agreed to stop reporting for RFE/RL. Colleagues say they believe that Durdymuradov was then transferred to a psychiatric hospital in the eastern Lebap region, notorious for “admitting” critics of the Turkmen regime, RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva told CPJ. However, Durdymuradov’s whereabouts have yet to be confirmed. When RFE/RL contacted MNB authorities to find out where Durdymuradov was, they told the outlet that they were unfamiliar with the case.
“We are outraged by the brazen criminal actions of Turkmen authorities and call on them to immediately release our colleague Sazak Durdymuradov,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The officers of the MNB responsible for abducting, torturing, and pressuring him should be immediately dismissed and prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law.”
On June 20, several MNB agents took Durdymuradov from his home in Bakhaden and moved him to a psychiatric hospital located between the cities of Bakhaden and Ashgabat. At the hospital, Durdymuradov later told his wife, 10 doctors examined and diagnosed him with mental instability, Yazliyeva told CPJ. Durdymuradov, who was in good health, has never had a psychiatric illness, Yazliyeva said. MNB agents then took him to an MNB station in Bakhaden. There, they beat him with a pipe, tortured him with electroshock, and harassed him to sign the letter, Yazliyeva said.
His wife, Ogulnar Durdymuradova, received a tip that her husband was at the MNB station, and found him there on Tuesday, June 24. She later told RFE/RL that her husband was in such a terrible shape that he told her “he wanted to die” after the torture he said he suffered at the hands of the MNB.
The abduction, torture, and forced hospitalization of Durdymuradov took place against the backdrop of Tuesday’s European Union-Turkmenistan talks on human rights. The summit, which took place in the capital, Ashgabat, was supposed to signal a reversal of Turkmenistan’s international isolation. The summit, however, was closed to independent journalists; only the state-controlled domestic media were invited. There was practically no press coverage of the meeting, titled “Human Rights Dialogue.”
“The gravity of this crime is exacerbated by its coinciding with Ashgabat’s so-called ‘human rights dialogue’ with the European Union,” Ognianova said. “The Turkmen regime is demonstrating nothing but scorn for human rights. The international community must, in turn, show that it would not tolerate such unabashed mockery of its fundamental principles, demand the immediate release of Durdymuradov, and the due punishment of all perpetrators of his abduction, torture, and forced hospitalization.”
Durdymuradov has contributed to the Turkmen Service of RFE/RL for the past two months, commenting on the necessity for more rigorous constitutional and educational reform in the gas-rich Central Asian state. “He criticized the Turkmen media for not publishing public opinion on the constitution draft but praised the educational ministry for undertaking positive reforms in the curriculum,” Yazliyeva told CPJ.
In one of his last reports for RFE/RL, Durdymuradov said on the air he felt comfortable using his real name—a sure sign, he said, that positive change is taking root in the country, Yazliyeva said.
Still, Turkmenistan remains one of the most isolated and repressive regimes in Central Asia. The 2006 death of tyrannical President Saparmurat Niyazov allowed for cautious hopes that his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, would loosen government reins on the media and civil society. Indeed, Berdymukhammedov took some small but positive steps to mend the country’s disastrous educational system, abandon the cult of personality created by Niyzov, and allow minimal public access to the Internet. However, the embattled broadcaster RFE/RL—the only alternative news outlet that provides Turkmen citizens with information about their country in their own language—continues to pay a heavy toll. Its correspondents endure harassment at the hands of MNB agents: everything from 24-hour surveillance, pressure on family members and friends to sever ties with them, severed phone lines, and physical attacks.
In a separate case, Osman Halliyev—an RFE/RL correspondent in the Lebap region, has been kept under virtual house arrest since early last week, the broadcaster reported. Halliyev told RFE/RL that MNB agents have placed his home under round-the-clock surveillance and agents follow him wherever he goes. University authorities expelled Halliyev’s son on June 20 in retaliation to his father’s reporting.
Turkmenistan still refuses to allow an independent investigation into the September 2006 death in an Ashgabat prison of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. Muradova, 58, had spent three months in state custody on spurious charges of possessing ammunition before prison authorities handed her battered body to her family on September 14, 2006. Authorities claimed Muradova died of natural causes despite the bruises on her body, and refused to release her autopsy results.