Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Khudayberdy Allashov, a correspondent for the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and his mother, who have been held since 3 December on a charge of possessing chewing tobacco.
Allashov and his mother were arrested when police raided their home in the northern town of Kunya-Urgench, began beating him and then carried out a search, finding a few packets of tobacco, which were used as a pretext for hauling them off to a police station.
Chewing tobacco is illegal in Turkmenistan but is widely consumed and, according to RFE/RL, its possession has not led to arrests in the past.
The dealer who sold the tobacco to Allashov was herself arrested for a few hours and was brought face-to-face with him in the police station. She told RFE/RL he was covered with bruises, and was unable to speak or even lift his head.
Allashov’s wife, who was also arrested and released twice, has been told that he signed a statement “admitting” to possessing 11 kilos of tobacco, much more than was found during the search.
A trial was due to have been held on 5 December behind closed doors with no defence lawyer present. It has yet to be confirmed whether the trial was indeed held and, if so, how it ended. Allashov, who began working for RFE/RL three or four months ago, was facing a possible seven-year jail term. He had recently reported local stories about sensitive topics such as food shortages and cotton-picking.
“There is no doubt that Khudayberdy Allashov is being persecuted because of journalistic activities, that he has been mistreated and forced to make a confession, and that he is now in great danger,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“We again urge the international community to take stock of the current crackdown on independent journalists in Turkmenistan and to hold its government to account. The OSCE foreign minister’s meeting today in Hamburg offers an opportunity. The countries that still proclaim democratic values must speak out and must demand the release of Allashov and his mother, and the release of Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a journalist held since July 2015.”
No criticism of the regime or its officials has ever been tolerated in Turkmenistan, which is ranked 178th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index. Recent months have nonetheless seen a new escalation in the persecution of journalists working for independent media based abroad, including RFE/RL.
RFE/RL correspondent Soltan Achilova was assaulted three times in the space of a few days in November, while Rovshen Yazmuhamedov, another RFE/RL correspondent, was threatened in November with being made to serve the suspended jail sentence he was given in 2013. Nepeskuliev, also an RFE/RL reporter, has meanwhile been detained for nearly 18 months.
No fewer than six RFE/RL contributors gave up working for the media outlet in 2015 as a result of harassment.