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One in all of Turkmenistan: who is Soltan Achilova, the finalist of the main award for human rights defenders

One in all of Turkmenistan: who is Soltan Achilova, the finalist of the main award for human rights defenders

Who is Soltan Achilova? The finalist of the main award for human rights defenders.

On Thursday, February 11, Geneva will host the annual Martin Ennals Prize, the most prestigious award in the field of human rights, which is informally called the Nobel Prize for Human Rights Defenders. Among the three finalists for this year's award is Turkmen journalist and photojournalist Soltan Achilova. The importance of Achilova's nomination and the situation with media freedom in Turkmenistan was discussed by the RFI Russian Service with the head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) Farid Tukhbatullin.

Soltan Achilova is a 71-year-old independent journalist and photojournalist based in Ashgabat. Because of her professional activities, Achilova is constantly subjected to persecution, attacks, pressure from the authorities, she was forbidden to leave the country. Despite this, Soltan Achilova continues to work under her own name for foreign media. She specializes in social issues and human rights issues.

RFI: Why was Soltan Achilova a finalist for this award? Farid Tukhbatullin: Soltan collaborated with the Turkmen service of Radio Liberty for several years, she was already over 50 and it was something new for her: she is not a journalist by profession, but her courage and her stubbornness, if I can say such a word, led to that she became quite famous in the country. Then she began to cooperate with our resource, "Chronicles of Turkmenistan" (an independent information resource of the human rights organization Turkmen Human Rights Initiative - RFI), and we still cooperate very closely. And why exactly her? There are few people in Turkmenistan (at least I know only two people) who openly work under their own names, as human rights activists, as journalists, and she is one of them. She chose this method of her own defense: when your name is a sensation, the authorities are already a little wary, they just won’t be able to jail you or do something else to you, because it will be international publicity, which our authorities are afraid of. And because her name can be used openly, we invited her to a number of international events. We cooperate with Human Rights Watch, with Amnesty International, International Partnership for Human Rights, and they are also aware of her work, and last year there was such an idea that since the situation with freedom of speech in Turkmenistan is in such a bad state (we even at one time fell below North Korea in the RSF rating), we decided to try to nominate Soltan for this award, and, fortunately, many people, professionals, were ready to support her. And now we are looking forward to the announcement of the results, but the fact that she has already been among the three finalists is in itself an assessment of her merits and an assessment of the situation in our country.

- Will this be an additional protection for her from the authorities of Turkmenistan? - We really hope for it, and she herself hopes for it, and, as I said, we discussed it with colleagues from international structures, they have extensive experience in working with other countries that are also problematic. And often this, of course, becomes a kind of such, if not a shield, then quite a serious defense. And we hope that the authorities will be wary. Because only last year there were several moments when they tried to take away her camera, pushed her, attacked her. But now, I hope they will think twice before doing so.

- Two years ago she was banned from traveling abroad. Is she still out of bounds? - No, she was able to leave, she filed an appeal. We established an ombudsman institute there a few years ago, it is still formal, but nonetheless... And we included this case in our various reports, that is, there was also external pressure on the Turkmen government, and they decided to play back anyway, she was allowed to leave, and, as I said before, we managed to invite her to one of the international events at the end of 2019.

- How do independent journalists still manage to work in Turkmenistan? You said that only two journalists work under their own names... - One of them is not quite a journalist, she is human rights activist Natalia Shabunts. And apart from Soltan Achilova, we have no more independent journalists. There are several people, two or three, who, under their own names, cooperate with the Turkmen service of «Radio Liberty», and it is difficult to call them completely independent. And to have accredited journalists from some foreign countries, in principle, we do not have such a thing. Our [Chronicles of Turkmenistan] correspondents work illegally. We never publish their data, we never accompany the articles they send with their names and even nicknames. We just publish on behalf of our site. But we have a few people who have been working for a decade and a half.

- There is total censorship in Turkmenistan, social networks are banned, foreign media are blocked, under such conditions is it possible to get any feedback from your readers, do you see a demand in the Turkmen society for independent information? - This request has always been strong. Yes, in our country the Internet, let's say, is very weak for technical reasons, with low speed, it is practically impossible to watch video, and, of course, it is under strict control. And people who live in Turkmenistan, young people who are more advanced and try to use proxy servers, VPNs, at least get something. But what can be tracked by visiting our resources, in social networks or on the website, is mainly our citizens living abroad - labor migrants, or students of foreign universities, mainly Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus ... * * * The Martin Ennals Award (British human rights activist, Secretary General of Amnesty International from 1968 to 1990) was established in 1993 and is awarded every year to human rights defenders for "extraordinary courage". Over the years, its laureates have been the Russian human rights activist, ex-head of the Grozny "Memorial" Lidia Yusupova (2004), the Uzbek journalist and human rights activist Mutabar Tajibayeva (2008), the Russian non-governmental organization Consolidated Mobile Group of Human Rights Defenders led by Igor Kalyapi.

RFI

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