Broadcaster loses contact with two correspondents for 2nd time

New York, March 30, 2006—The Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has lost contact with correspondents Meter Khommadov and Dzhumadurdy Ovezov for a second time this month, the broadcaster said today. Khommadov gave an interview to the service on March 23, describing the conditions of his and Ovezov’s March 7 arrest and 10-day prison stay. The next day, RFE/RL lost contact with both correspondents, Rozynazar Khoudaiberdiev of the RFE/RL Turkmen service in Prague told CPJ in a telephone interview.

Khommadov and Ovezov were arrested by local police in the southeastern Mary region on March 7 and held incommunicado at a prison in the city of Mary. They were released after authorities forced them to sign papers confessing that they were traitors inciting religious hatred, Khommadov told the broadcaster. Authorities warned them to stop cooperating with RFE/RL, Khommadov said in the interview.

In a March 23 interview for RFE/RL, Khommadov described his and Ovezov’s ordeal in detail. After arresting them on the morning of March 7, local police took them to the Mary provincial governor’s office, or Hakimlik, where village elders shouted at them and called them traitors. “They put pressure on me,” Khommadov told the broadcaster, “saying that I trained Dzhuma [Dzhumadurdy Ovezov] to work for RFE/RL.”

Khommadov told RFE/RL that he and Ovezov were kept in cockroach-infested cells with metal beds and no mattresses or sheets. “You have to stay together with people suffering from tuberculosis and drug abuses,” Khommadov told RFE/RL.

The harsh conditions aggravated Ovezov’s health; he is suffering from kidney problems. After releasing the two from jail, the Ministry of National Security (MNB) placed them under 24-hour surveillance. “People are around my house and Dzhuma’s house, watching. He cannot leave. At night his son came to me and said his father was ill and asked me to come,” Khommadov told RFE/RL. “Then Dzhuma told me he was sick and he didn’t know what to do. He said, ’If I go to the doctor he might give me the wrong injection and kill me.’ ”

After Khommadov spoke to RFE/RL about his and Ovezov’s detention, their phone lines were disconnected, Khoudaiberdiev told CPJ. Their current condition is unknown.

“We are gravely concerned about our colleagues Meret Khommadov and Dzhumadurdy Ovezov, who might be in need of immediate medical attention,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on Turkmen authorities to halt this virtual house arrest and unwarranted harassment and to allow the journalists to do their jobs freely.”

Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most closed societies, and RFE/RL is considered the only independent source of news and information in the country. Authorities routinely persecute journalists affiliated with the radio service, private citizens who have given interviews to RFE/RL, and relatives and friends of RFE/RL journalists, according to CPJ research. Most RFE/RL correspondents use pseudonyms to avoid official harassment, which includes threats, detentions, interrogations, surveillance, torture, and imprisonment.

Read previous CPJ alerts on Khommadov and Ovezov for March 9 and March 20.

Read an overview of press freedom conditions in Turkmenistan.