Nurgeldi Halykov, a freelance correspondent working for the independent Netherlands-based news website Turkmen.news, is serving a four-year prison sentence in Turkmenistan after being convicted on fraud charges in September 2020. 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 was published in 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 until 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.
Myatiev 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.
Citing a source in the National Security Ministry, Turkmen.news reported that the deputy minister of national security, Orazgeldi Meredov, interrogated Halykov after his arrest and gave the journalist a choice between admitting to the fabricated fraud charge or being convicted on fabricated rape charges. The alleged involvement of the deputy minister in what authorities claimed was a routine fraud case demonstrated that it was a fabricated political case, the outlet alleged.
CPJ was unable to obtain contact details for Meredov or the National Security Ministry to request comment.
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 reached out to Rogusskiy via messaging app in November 2023 for comment but did not receive any reply.
On February 17, 2021, several United Nations 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.
At a session of the U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva in March 2023, committee member Mahjoub El Haiba called on Turkmen authorities to release Halykov, according to a report by Turkmen.news, which said that Turkmenistan’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Vepa Hajiyev, had promised that the request would be considered.
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. In April 2023, Turkmen.news reported that authorities had continued to send Halykov to a punishment cell “on any minor pretext,” including whenever his outlet wrote about him, and that the journalist was not being allowed to make telephone calls.
On May 15, 2023, Halykov and three other alleged political prisoners wrote a letter to the U.N. representative office in Turkmenistan requesting a meeting and assistance in protecting their rights. The four said authorities had used “psychological and physical pressure” against them and had fabricated their cases in retaliation for their activism, and that the authorities were denying them their legal right to meetings and calls with their families. The fact that they had not been granted amnesty, which other prisoners with similar convictions have been given, for three consecutive years confirms the political nature of their cases, they wrote.
The letter marked the first time that Turkmen prisoners had publicly appealed to an international organization, according to independent news website Mediazona, adding that if the United Nations did not show enough attention to their situation, then authorities could retaliate by worsening the conditions of their detention or extending their sentences. Turkmen.news published evidence that authorities were investigating how the prisoners were able to smuggle the letter out of prison.
On May 25, the U.N. Resident Coordinator in Turkmenistan, Dmitry Shlapachenko, told Turkmen.news that he was liaising with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the letter, and that he did not have any comments for the media. Myatiev told CPJ in October 2023 that it was still unknown if the U.N. had taken any further steps regarding Halykov’s letter.
Halykov is being held at the LB-E/12 Police Facility in the eastern Lebap region, according to a government document published in the May 2021 Turkmen.news statement. Myatiev confirmed that Halykov remained at this facility as of late 2023. CPJ was unable to determine his health status in detention.
Myatiev told CPJ that he did not believe Halykov was appealing his sentence. He said he had not been able to establish the identity of Halykov’s lawyer, adding that the journalist’s family had previously expressed a firm desire not to talk about the case. He said the family’s calls were likely being monitored.
In December 2023, CPJ emailed the Ministry of Internal Affairs for comment but did not receive any reply. CPJ also called the Bagtyýarlyk District Court, but no one answered.