Nurgeldi Halykov

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On July 13, 2020, Turkmenistan police detained Nurgeldi Halykov, a freelance correspondent working for the independent Netherlands-based news website Turkmen.news. In September 2020, he was sentenced to four years in prison on fraud charges.

Halykov was not included on CPJ’s 2020 prison census, as CPJ was not aware of his case at the time.

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, where the government insisted that the country did not have any cases, according to reports

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.

The following day, Halykov’s acquaintance asked him if he had passed the image to the news outlet; a few hours later, police in Ashgabat called Halykov and summoned him for questioning, that 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 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 that alleged loan, according to a December 14 report by Turkmen.news. 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 on December 12, that report said. Myatiev told CPJ that Halykov had remained in detention between the July 13 summons and his sentencing.

Myatiev said he was sure the charges against Halykov were fabricated in retaliation for his journalistic activity. He said he believed the allegation of an unpaid loan was false, as Halykov was not in desperate need of money and had a close relationship with Myatiev and would have told him if he had financial problems. He added that failures to repay debts are rarely criminally prosecuted in Turkmenistan.

Myatiev said 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. Turkmen.news reported that police had identified the woman who posted the photo from hotel surveillance cameras and summoned her and the friends who were with her at the hotel for questioning; they then examined the contents of her phone contacts list and message history, after which they released her and her friends without charge and summoned Halykov.

Myatiev said he suspected authorities had discovered Halykov’s wider 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, and he was afraid that authorities physically abused him to coerce a confession.

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 had heard Halykov had been given a six-month sentence, those reports said.

CPJ called and messaged Rogusskiy by messaging app for comment, but did not receive any replies.

Halykov is being held at the LB-E/12 police facility in the eastern Lebap region, according to a government document published in Turkmen.news’ statement. Myatiev confirmed that Halykov remains at this facility as of late 2021.

On February 17, 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, according to reports. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro also raised Halykov’s detention during a meeting with Turkmen officials, according to a statement by the organization.

Myatiev told CPJ in September 2021 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 added that Halykov was in good health, but said he could not disclose how he knew that. He also said that he did not believe the journalist was appealing his sentence. 

In May and October 2021, CPJ called several different phone numbers for the Turkmenistan Interior Ministry, but the calls rang unanswered or did not go through. CPJ emailed the ministry, but did not receive any reply. CPJ also called the Bagtyýarlyk Dictrict Court for comment, but no one answered.