The December 21 death of Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-proclaimed president-for-life, ended a two-decade rule that plunged Turkmenistan into a dark abyss in which the state maintained absolute control over information. His sudden death from heart failure at age 66 left the nation with an indelible legacy of repression. Niyazov’s eccentric personality probably won’t be matched by his successor, but his press policies seem likely to survive. The national assembly named Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, a Niyazov loyalist, as acting head of state and scheduled elections for early 2007. Berdymuhammedov vowed to follow in the late president’s path.
Turkmenistan’s isolated, authoritarian government had earned the nation a place on CPJ’s 10 Most Censored Countries list in 2006. Niyazov, who had led Turkmenistan since 1985, when it was still a Soviet republic, went much further than most autocrats by banning libraries, foreign publications, opera, ballet, and circuses. The state owns all domestic media, appoints editors, approves news content prior to publication, and orders television anchors to swear allegiance to the president during broadcasts. The U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which has maintained an informal network of correspondents, has been the nation’s only alternative source of news and information.
Niyazov had built an extraordinary cult of personality, calling himself the “father of all Turkmen” renaming the month of January after himself, and installing thousands of portraits and statues nationwide in his own honor. The state-controlled media provided hagiographic coverage of the president, his speeches, his meetings with state ministers, and his family–all while ignoring drug abuse, the spread of HIV/AIDS, rampant unemployment, poor health care and education systems, budget deficits, pension cuts, and widespread corruption.
The climate of isolation turned vicious in 2006. The state of press freedom in Turkmenistan was encapsulated by the September death in prison of an RFE/RL reporter, who was arrested on a bogus charge, denied a lawyer and due process, and then killed while in the government’s custody. Ogulsapar Muradova, Ashgabat correspondent for RFE/RL, suffered head and neck injuries while in prison, according to a Turkmen human rights group, which had spoken with relatives. CPJ and other international organizations called for an independent inquiry into the death, but a Turkmen government accustomed to being above accountability did not respond.
Authorities in the capital, Ashgabat, handed over the body on September 14 only after Western diplomats accompanied Muradova’s children to the morgue, RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Aleksandr Narodetsky told CPJ. CPJ sources and RFE/RL said authorities rejected the family’s request for an autopsy and would not disclose the cause or date of death. Security forces then surrounded the Muradova home and prevented people from seeing the body or contacting Muradova’s relatives, those sources said. The family’s telephone lines were cut.
Muradova, 58, had been detained June 18 on a spurious charge of possessing ammunition, held incommunicado, and denied legal counsel. She was convicted and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment on August 25 after a closed-door trial that lasted all of a few minutes, then placed in a women’s prison in the northern city of Dashoguz that is notorious for abuse, according to CPJ sources and RFE/RL.
Muradova’s body had a large head wound and bruises around the neck, according to the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, which spoke with the journalist’s adult children before the phone lines were cut. RFE/RL’s Narodetsky also said the children reported that their mother had a head wound.
The foundation, relying on witness accounts, said a dazed and incoherent Muradova had already been forced to confess to taking part in a foreign conspiracy to smear the country. In addition to her work for RFE/RL, Muradova had monitored human rights for the foundation. The health and status of two human rights activists, tried along with her and convicted on similar ammunition charges, were unknown in late year. Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadzhiyev had been sentenced to seven years each in the same closed trial.
Correspondents for RFE/RL were singled out for punishment throughout the year. Because authorities routinely persecute journalists, their friends, and family for being affiliated with RFE/RL, most journalists use pseudonyms to avoid government retribution. Over the years that retribution has ranged from threats and surveillance to torture and imprisonment.
The crackdown on RFE/RL intensified in February and escalated further in midyear. In late February, the Ministry of National Security (MNB) detained Balkansk correspondent Shamurad Akoyliyev and warned him that his affiliation with the broadcaster was “unacceptable.” Akoyliyev reported on sports and did not cover sensitive subjects, RFE/RL’s Narodetsky said. Following the interrogation, authorities cut off his telephone and placed him under 24-hour surveillance, the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation told CPJ. Relatives were pressured to halt communication with Akoyliyev, the group said.
In March, police arrested RFE/RL correspondents Meret Khommadov and Dzhumadurdy Ovezov, who reported from the southeastern city of Mary. Authorities charged Khommadov and Ovezov with “hooliganism” and accused them of interrupting a town hall meeting. They were sentenced to 15 days in a lice- and cockroach-infested jail without beds, mattresses, or sheets. To gain early release, they were forced to sign written statements, confessing to being traitors and instigators of religious hatred. Police officials threatened to harm their families if they continued to report for RFE/RL, according to an interview the two gave to the news agency after their release.
Muradova’s arrest was preceded by an escalating series of terror-inducing attacks. She told colleagues that MNB agents were following her and were threatening to imprison her and her children. In April, her mobile and land phone lines were turned off. The day before her arrest, arsonists set her elderly mother’s home on fire. Muradova’s three adult children–Maral, Berdy, and Sona–were themselves arrested on June 19 and held for two weeks, RFE/RL reported.
Niyazov had routinely disregarded international criticism of his regime’s abysmal human rights record, but his isolationism turned adversarial in June. He accused French diplomats and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of conspiring with Turkmen journalists and human rights advocates to film a documentary that would tarnish the nation’s image and destabilize the country. Both the OSCE and the French Embassy denied the charges. On June 19, National Security Minister Geldymukhammed Ashirmukhammedov accused Tadzhigul Begmedova, chairwoman of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, of being involved in the same plot. Begmedova said the accusations were nonsensical.