Journalist Nurgeldi Halykov, a freelance correspondent working for the independent Netherlands-based news website Turkmen.news, has been serving a four-year prison sentence in Turkmenistan since September 2020 on fraud charges. Turkmenistan police detained him in July 2020.
Halykov contributed to Turkmen.news since 2017, and did so anonymously to protect himself from government retaliation, the website’s director Ruslan Myatiev told CPJ in a video interview. The media environment in Turkmenistan is one of the most restrictive in the world, according to CPJ research, and independent, foreign-based outlets rely on networks of correspondents who often publish anonymously, a number of whom have previously been jailed on retaliatory charges.
Halykov covered various topics, Myatiev said, but particularly authorities’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a sensitive topic in Turkmenistan, given the government’s insistence that the country did not have any cases.
On July 12, 2020, Halykov noticed an image an acquaintance had posted on social media, showing a World Health Organization delegation at a hotel in Ashgabat, and forwarded it to Turkmen.news, which published it later that day, according to a statement by the outlet in May 2021, following a United Nations inquiry into the journalist’s imprisonment.
On July 13, Halykov’s acquaintance asked him if he had passed the image on to the news outlet, and a few hours later, police in Ashgabat called Halykov and summoned him for questioning, the Turkmen.news statement said. The outlet then lost all contact with him, with the exception of a brief message on July 26, in which he explained that authorities had accused him of failing to repay a $5,000 loan from a friend.
On September 15, 2020, the Bagtyýarlyk District Court in Ashgabat sentenced Halykov to four years in prison on fraud charges over the alleged loan, according to a report by Turkmen.news that December. The outlet learned of Halykov’s sentencing in October, but had refrained from covering it because law enforcement officers had falsely promised Halykov’s family that the journalist would be included in a batch of presidential pardons, that report said. Myatiev told CPJ that Halykov had remained in detention from July 13 to his sentencing.
Myatiev said he was sure the charges against Halykov were fabricated and in retaliation for his journalistic activity, adding that the World Health Organization delegation’s presence in Turkmenistan was no secret and had been covered by Turkmen state media, so he believed authorities pursued Halykov for his collaboration with a foreign, independent outlet.
Myatiev said he suspected that authorities had discovered Halykov’s broader work for Turkmen.news during questioning, and that was the reason for the extended prison sentence. He told CPJ that Halykov used secure communications and regularly cleaned his electronic records, adding that he was afraid authorities had physically abused the journalist to coerce a confession.
He said he believed the allegation about the unpaid loan was false, as Halykov was not in desperate need of money and would have told him if he had financial problems given their close relationship. The failure to repay debt is rarely criminally prosecuted in Turkmenistan, according to Myatiev.
Turkmen.news reported that it had established the identity of Halykov’s friend who had filed the fraud charges against him as Yuriy Rogusskiy, and that security forces had used him to get at Halykov. Rogusskiy did not appear at Halykov’s trial and told friends that he heard Halykov had been given a six-month sentence, those reports said. CPJ called and messaged Rogusskiy via messaging app for comment but did not receive any replies.
On February 11, 2021, Teresa Ribeiro, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, raised Halykov’s detention during a meeting with Turkmen officials, according to a statement by the organization. On February 17, 2021, several U.N. agencies sent a 10-page joint statement to Turkmen authorities detailing their concerns with Halykov’s sentence and requesting more information. The Turkmen government replied with three short paragraphs containing no new information, Turkmen.news reported in its May 2021 statement.
Halykov is being held at the LB-E/12 Police Facility in the eastern Lebap region, according to a government document published in that Turkmen.newsstatement. Myatiev confirmed that Halykov remained at this facility as of late 2022.
In May 2022, Myatiev told CPJ that prison authorities had placed Halykov in a punishment cell on three occasions after Turkmen.news wrote about his case.
Myatiev told CPJ that he had not been able to establish the identity of Halykov’s lawyer, and that Halykov’s family had previously expressed a firm desire not to talk about the case. He said the family’s calls were likely being monitored.
Myatiev told CPJ late September 2022 that he had recently established that Halykov was in good health. He said that he did not believe the journalist was appealing his sentence.
In September 2022, CPJ called several phone numbers for the Turkmenistan Interior Ministry, but the calls were unanswered or did not go through. CPJ emailed the ministry but did not receive any reply. CPJ also called the Bagtyýarlyk District Court for comment, but no one answered.