Freelance journalist Saparmamed Nepeskuliev has been held incommunicado for the past two months and has been denied all contact with his family. Even his possible three-year jail sentence cannot be confirmed. How can a government make a journalist disappear like that?
Where exactly is Nepeskuliev now? Has he or has he not been sentenced to three years in jail? Has he had a lawyer? All of these questions remain unanswered. A resident of Balkanabat, a town 150 km southeast of the western city of Turkmenbashi, Nepeskuliev was last seen by his family on 7 July. They tracked him down to a prison near Turkmenbashi three weeks later but they still have not been allowed to see him. His mother told the Netherlands-based news website Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) that she had learned on 4 September that he was sentenced to three years in prison on 31 August. But it has not yet been possible to officially confirm this. The family plans to go to Turkmenbashi (to which they think he was transferred at the end of August) in order to request a copy of the verdict at the courthouse and then file an appeal. But this may prove difficult. ATN editor Ruslan Myatiev told Reporters Without Borders: “The entire region is closed because of the Elders’ Council that will be held on 10 September in Avaza (a resort town on the outskirts of Turkmenbashi). For President Berdymuhamedov's safety, no unauthorized people will be allowed to travel to Turkmenbashi for any reason.” Myatiev added that he thought the timing of Nepeskuliev’s trial and the belated notification of the verdict to the family was designed to prevent the family from filing an appeal within the 10-day deadline. Nepeskuliev freelances for ATN and the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), mainly covering social and infrastructural issues in and around Turkmenbashi and Balkanabat and often drawing attention to local government incompetence and abuses. The government media have been waging a smear campaign against him, giving credence to the drug possession charges apparently brought against him. At the same time, the authorities are said to be putting a lot of pressure on his relatives. “The continuing silence from the authorities about Saparmamed Nepeskuliev’s fate is completely illegal,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “The silence is a nightmare for his family and increases our concern about his safety. We yet again call on the authorities, as a matter of urgency, to provide full details about his current status and his possible conviction, and to free him without delay.” Media freedom is non-existent in Turkmenistan, which is ranked 178th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, above only North Korea and Eritrea. The only independent media are based abroad, and reporting for them from inside the country is very risky. When journalists are arrested, they are usually tortured and the authorities usually fail to confirm their arrest. Read the previous Reporters Without Borders press release about Saparmamed Nepeskuliev (30.07.2015) (Photo: ATN)