Russian correspondent forced to leave Ashgabat

New York, March 18, 2005—One of the few foreign journalists in Turkmenistan, the Ashgabat correspondent for the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, has been forced to leave the country under circumstances that remain unclear.

Viktor Panov was seen in handcuffs at Ashgabat’s airport accompanied by several men in civilian cloths who led him to a Moscow-bound flight on March 12, The Associated Press reported. Panov, who holds Russian and Turkmen citizenship, has been RIA Novosti’s Ashgabat correspondent since the mid-1990s.

Memorial, a Moscow-based human rights organization, reported that security agents arrested Panov on February 24, detained him for more than two weeks, and then deported him to Russia for allegedly engaging in espionage. Security agents arrested Panov and a senior official in Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry while they were having dinner in a restaurant. The ministry official was also detained on espionage charges, according to local and international press reports.

Panov has returned to Moscow, a senior official at RIA Novosti headquarters in Moscow told CPJ in a brief telephone interview today. The official, who requested anonymity, disputed reports that Panov had been deported, but he would not elaborate on the circumstances surrounding the journalist’s departure from Turkmenistan. An official who answered the phone at Turkmenistan’s embassy in Washington, D.C., refused to identify himself or comment on the matter.

Turkmenistan’s president, Saparmurat Niyazov, keeps a stranglehold on politics and the press in his isolated country. His administration appoints editors and censors the content of the domestic media. Diplomatic relations between Russia and Turkmenistan are tense; the Kremlin is interested in acquiring natural gas supplies from Turkmenistan but has been angered by the treatment of ethnic Russians and allows Turkmen opposition activists to stay in Moscow.