The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonprofit organization committed to defending press freedom worldwide, is extremely concerned about escalating government persecution of Turkmen journalists working for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
On February 23, 2004, agents from the National Security Ministry (MNB) questioned RFE/RL freelancer Rakhim Esenov and accused him of smuggling 800 copies of his novel Ventsenosny Skitalets (The Crowned Wanderer) from Russia into Turkmenistan. This historical account of the Mogul Empire was published for the first time in Russia in 2003 after being banned in Turkmenistan for 10 years.
Esenov, a respected writer and historian, has been subjected to official harassment since 1998 and has periodically been called in for questioning by MNB agents and pressured to sever his collaboration with RFE/RL. Last year, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office forced Esenov to sign a handwritten statement promising that “he will become a law-abiding citizen, will always be loyal to [Turkmenistan’s president] and support his policies,” RFE/RL told CPJ. In a letter to RFE/RL regarding this incident, Esenov said: “Authorities want to condemn my relation with Radio Liberty as an illegal activity.”
During the February 23 questioning, Esenov was asked to reveal who helped him finance the book and ship it to Turkmenistan. MNB officials also pressured him to reveal the names of other RFE/RL correspondents working in Turkmenistan, said RFE/RL.
Esenov, 78, is in poor health, said RFE/RL. He recently suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized with a stroke after the MNB questioned him on February 23. Two days after his stroke, while still in the hospital, Esenov was questioned again by MNB agents. Following this round of questioning, the journalist was moved to an intensive care unit. On February 26, MNB agents arrested Esenov and placed him in an MNB prison.
Esenov has been charged by the MNB with instigating social, ethnic, and religious hatred. According to Article 177 of Turkmenistan’s Criminal Code, he faces up to four years imprisonment if found guilty, RFE/RL reported. MNB officials have also arrested Esenov’s son-in-law, Igor Kaprielov, as part of the government’s broader policy of imposing collective punishment against the families of journalists and opposition activists. Kaprielov has been charged by MNB with illegal smuggling under Article 254.2 of the Criminal Code.
Ashyrguly Bayryev, a close friend of Esenov and an RFE/RL freelancer, has also been harassed for working with RFE/RL. According to RFE/RL, on March 1, 2004, Bayryev was summoned to the MNB, allegedly because of his relationship with Esenov, but authorities have failed to specify what he has been accused of. Last year, police detained Bayryev and warned him to cease communicating with RFE/RL correspondent Saparmurat Ovezberdiev.
According to international reports, MNB agents detained Ovezberdiev on September 11, 2003, held him for three days, severely beat him, drugged him, and threatened him with 20 years of prison for betraying his country because of his work for RFE/RL. Two months later, according to international press reports, two MNB agents abducted Ovezberdiev from his home in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat; took him to a local cemetery; brutally beat him; threatened him with death if he continued to work for RFE/RL; and then left him by the road side. Since the attacks, MNB agents have been stationed at Ovezberdiev’s house and have prevented him from practicing his profession, said the RFE/RL official.
Turkmenistan has a reputation as one of the world’s most closed societies, and your government’s persecution of these journalists only reinforces that perception. We call on you to respect the basic human rights of individuals guaranteed under international law. And we urge you, Your Excellency, to do everything within your power to release Esenov, Kaprielov, and Bayryev, drop the charges against them, and allow journalists, such as Ovezberdiev, to work freely.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.