Radio journalist arrested without charge or explanation

New York, June 21, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the arrests of Ogulsapar Muradova, an Ashgabat-based correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and her three children. Muradova, arrested on Sunday, is being held without charge at Ashgabat Interior Ministry (MVR) headquarters. Her three adult children—Maral, Berdy and Sona—were taken into custody on Monday, also without charge.

No arrest warrants were produced, and Turkmen officials did not explain the reasons for the detentions, according to press reports and CPJ interviews. Colleagues and human rights defenders told CPJ the detentions are part of a broader and ongoing crackdown on independent journalists, human rights activists, and their relatives.

“In short, [President Saparmurat] Niyazov is trying to crush every form of alternative thought,” Tadjigul Begmedova, chairwoman of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF), told CPJ. “And the best way to shut the mouths of those who think and speak differently is to crack down on their families.” The organization is headquartered in Bulgaria because it cannot operate under Niyazov’s repressive regime.

Begmedova said Muradova, 58, had told THF that strangers she believed to be National Security Ministry (MNB) agents were following her, watching her apartment around-the-clock, threatening her with eviction from her home, and threatening to imprison her son and two daughters if she did not stop contributing to RFE/RL. Muradova also informed RFE/RL of the threats, Turkmen Service Director Aleksandr Narodetsky told CPJ. In April, Narodetsky said, authorities turned off Muradova’s mobile and land phone lines. “She had reported for us on social issues and on education. There was nothing political, but they shut her off anyway.”

In May, Muradova told RFE/RL that the MNB had placed her and her family under constant surveillance. “We have been under full-scale surveillance for more than 20 days now and they videotape all my comings and goings,” an RFE/RL press release quoted Muradova as saying.

On June 17, Muradova said that unknown arsonists set her elderly mother’s home on fire. Neighbors helped put out the blaze, THF said in a press release.

Following their arrest of Muradova on Sunday, MNB agents went to her home and demanded that her children hand over the journalist’s computer, fax machine, and mobile phone. When they refused, an agent made a call on his walkie-talkie, and Muradova’s children heard their mother’s voice being transmitted. Muradova told them that they should do as the agent said, Begmedova told CPJ, but “her speech was slurring and inconsistent.”

Human right organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Muradova could have been drugged or tortured. Authorities ultimately seized the equipment.

In a separate incident, authorities arrested two THF members working from Ashgabat—Annakurban Amanklychev and Yelena Ovezova—last week, according to THF and international press reports. Begmedova told CPJ that police also arrested one of her relatives, Saparmurad Khadjiev, without a warrant or explanation.

“Niyazov’s regime considers RFE/RL, human rights defenders, and oppositionists foreign spies and traitors of Turkmenistan,” Narodetsky told CPJ.

On Monday, National Security Minister Geldymukhammed Ashirmukhammedov said on national television that a cultural advisor to the French Embassy in Ashgabat and another French citizen working at the Ashgabat office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had been trying to make video recordings “of slanderous and provocative nature intended for foreign special services and subversive centers,” The Associated Press reported. Ashirmukhamedov said that an RFE/RL reporter, apparently Muradova, was involved, AP said. Agence France-Presse quoted Ashirmukhammedov as saying the videos were intended to show dissatisfied citizens and unfavorable conditions in Ashgabat.

“These unwarranted actions highlight Turkmenistan’s abysmal press freedom record,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on Turkmen authorities to immediately release Muradova and her family, stop official harassment of her family, and end the crackdown on independent journalists.”

RFE/RL is considered the only independent source of news and information in Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most closed societies. 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.