Reporters Without Borders is extremely worried to learn that Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev (Довлетмурад Язгулиев), a reporter for Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen-language service of Prague-based Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), went on trial yesterday in Ashgabat on a clearly trumped-up charge of encouraging a relative’s suicide attempt.
“A prosecution is far from being a trivial matter for an independent journalist in Turkmenistan,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Given the criminalization of journalism, the judicial system’s complete lack of independence and the terrible prison conditions, we fear the worst. It is clear from the absurd charge that has been brought against Yazkuliyev that he is being made to pay for his outspoken reporting for Radio Azatlyk and in his blogs.”
Yazkuliyev was one of the first people to cover the deadly explosion at an arms depot in the Ashgabat suburb of Abadan on 7 July. Despite the government’s denials, news of the accident spread rapidly thanks to amateur video and the accounts posted online by netizens. The authorities lost no time in cracking down on bloggers, journalists and ordinary residents in Abadan, using arrests, searches, threats, interrogations and seizures of telephones and computer material.
On 14 July, Yazkuliyev was summoned to the police station in Annau, the small town where he lives. An official from the National Security Ministry warned him of “possible judicial consequences” if he did not stop “disseminating defamatory information” and refrain from “provocation.”
Radio Azatlyk director Oguljamal Yazliyeva told Reporters Without Borders: “He is a correspondent who is always ready to speak out and often tackles sensitive subjects such as the human rights situation and corruption. His latest reports were about cases of torture and police violence, for which he had interviewed people in the region where he is from.”
Yazkuliyev was arrested on 27 September on a charge of inciting suicide under article 106.2 of the criminal code, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and is being held in Yazkuliyev prison, near the capital.
Relatives told Radio Azatlyk that they were forced to sign statements falsely accusing Yazkuliyev of having encouraged his sister-in-law’s attempt to commit suicide on 17 September. After realizing how their statements could be used against him, they tried to formally retract them on 27 September, but without success.
The media were not allowed to attend the first hearing of his trial yesterday, which was held in the evening after an unexplained delay. He was not represented by a lawyer at the hearing.
“This is not the first time that the authorities take advantage of family problems to put pressure on journalists,” Yazliyeva added. “It is even standard procedure. This was the grounds used for confining Amangelen Shapudakov to a psychiatric hospital in March for giving us an interview.”
The fact Yazkuliyev was immediately detained after the decision to charge him supports the assumption that this is a political trial. Radio Azatlyk’s reporters are regularly targeted in Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most closed countries. One of them, Ogulsapar Muradova, died under torture in detention in September 2006. Two other Turkmen journalists, Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadjiyev, are currently serving eight-year jail sentences for helping with a report for the French current affairs TV programme “Envoyé Spécial.”
“The start of this trial on the very day that the campaign for next February’s presidential election officially got under way bodes ill for the ‘democratization’ promised by the government,” Reporters Without Borders added. “A free and fair election is inconceivable without a free press and an independent judicial system.”
Turkmenistan is ranked 176th out of 178 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.