In recent weeks, the authorities in Turkmenistan have ramped up the pressure on independent journalists, human rights and civil society activists, NBCentral Asia observers say.
Sazak Durdymuradov, a reporter for the Turkmen service of RFE/RL, was arrested on June 20 in the town of Baharden, about 100 kilometres from the capital Ashgabat.
According to the media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders, the journalist was beaten and tortured by officers of the National Security Service, who demanded he stop providing material to the foreign broadcaster.
The same day, police officers came to the house of Gurbanguly Durdygulyev, a civic activist from the western town of Nebitdag, and told him he should undergo psychiatric testing.
Durdygulyev is a former prisoner of conscience who spent several years in prisons and mental hospitals when the late Saparmurat Niazov was Turkmen president.
According to Turkmenskaya Iskra, an opposition internet site, publication, Durdymuradov and Durdygulyev were targeted for the same reason. The security service moved to silence them after finding out they were due to take part in a discussion programme for RFE/RL.
Their remarks – which would have been recorded on June 20 if the police had not intervened that day – were to have formed part of a debate on the extent of public participation in the drafting of a new constitution for Turkmenistan.
NBCentralAsia observers say both men’s cases are part of a worrying trend of ever tighter controls and pressure placed on journalists, human rights activists and critics of the authorities.
On June 14, Gulgeldy Annaniazov, a dissident who has been living as a refugee in Norway for several years, was arrested in the village of Keshi, not far from Ashgabat.
Human rights defenders say Annaniazov had returned to Turkmenistan only a day early, with plans to work on a joint Turkmen-Norwegian project on how to treat drug addiction and tuberculosis.
He had, they say, been inspired to come back to the country by President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov’s talk of change.
At the beginning of June, the Turkmen authorities prevented civil society activist and ecologist Andrei Zatoka from leaving the country. He had been planning to attend an environmental conference in Moscow.
In May, a court handed down a 12-year prison sentence to Valery Pal, a civil society activist from the western city of Turkmenbashi, after convicting him of economic crimes. Human rights activists say the case was clearly politically motivated and should be reviewed fairly.
Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation based in Bulgaria, says these recent negative trends are not surprising, as the government still applies a dual-standard policy of talking about democracy and freedom while continuing to use repression to punish dissidents.
“If Berdymuhammedov was really planning to liberalise things, he would begin by criticising the repression practiced by his predecessor [Niazov],” she said. “That hasn’t happened, so continued arrests were only to be expected.”
Begmedova said her group was constantly receiving reports of persecution of its activists inside the country.
Inside sources in the Turkmen law enforcement agencies say the country’s Security Council met on June 19 session and issued a special directive to clamp down on people deemed to be politically unreliable.
One source listed the suspect categories, which appear unchanged from Niazov’s time, as “journalists; former members of NGOs that have now been closed down; the more active members of ethnic minority groups; young people and experts who have been to the United States on exchange programmes; graduates of universities abroad; and relatives and friends of dissidents based abroad”.
Many journalists now fear arrest more than ever, as the surveillance methods used by the secret services evolve and become ever more sophisticated.
“We are monitored everywhere, all email passwords are accessible, correspondence is read, and the phones are tapped,” said one local independent journalist. “So at any moment, they can accuse us of engaging in anti-state activity, which is how they interpret any information transfer.”