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(Berlin) – Turkmen authorities should immediately free or credibly charge a journalist arrested on May 6, 2013, for unreported reasons. The journalist, Rovshen Yazmuhamedov, has been a local correspondent in Turkmenistan for United States government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) since September 2012.

Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries in the world and has a record of arresting and harassing journalists,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We are deeply concerned that the authorities arrested Rovshen Yazmuhamedov because of his work as a journalist.”

RFE/RL told Human Rights Watch that Yazmuhamedov, 30, is being held at the local directorate of the Internal Affairs Ministry in Turkmenabat, in southeast Turkmenistan, in the department that handles organized crime and counterterrorism.

RFE/RL told Human Rights Watch that it has not been able to reach local police authorities to get information about Yazmukhamedov’s case.

Yazmuhamedov left his home on the afternoon of May 6 and did not return, RFE/RL said. The next day a prosecutor phoned his mother, confirmed that he was in custody, and instructed her to bring his passport to the police station. She saw her son at the station but was not able to speak with him. Human Rights Watch could not determine whether Yazmuhamedov has had access to a lawyer.

RFE/RL told Human Rights Watch that Yazmuhamedov, who wrote several stories weekly on social issues, had been questioned by the authorities at least twice earlier in 2013 after his articles generated active online reader response. These included an article about a girl barred from school for wearing a hijab – a Muslim headscarf.

Although Yazmuhamedov wrote under a pseudonym, RFE/RL said the authorities were aware he was working with the news agency.In 2012 the United Nations Human Rights Committee said that the Turkmen government “systematically does not respect the right to freedom of expression,” “harass[es] and intimidate[s] journalists and human rights defenders,” and “monitors the use of the internet and blocks access to some websites.” In an April 2013 review of Turkmenistan by the UN Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review process, UN member states focused on the dire human rights situation in the country, including restrictions on the media.Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index 2013 ranked Turkmenistan 177 out of 179 countries, ahead only of North Korea and Eritrea.

Yazmuhamedov is the third RFE/RL journalist taken into custody by Turkmen authorities in the past two years.

In October 2011 a Turkmen court sentenced another RFE/RL contributor, Dovletmurad Yazkuliyev, to five years in prison on false charges of urging his sister-in-law to commit suicide. The charges, brought in September 2011, were in retribution for Yazkuliyev’s blogs critical of the authorities’ inadequate response to explosions in a military armory in July 2011, which caused many deaths and extensive damage to civilian property. A week after the blasts, National Security Service officials interrogated Yazkuliyev and threatened him with prison if he did not stop his reporting on the incident. After an international outcry, Yazkuliyev was released from prison on October 26, 2011, under a general presidential amnesty.

In March 2011 Turkmen authorities detained Amangelen Shapudakov, another RFE/RL contributor, who was 80 years old at the time, and forcibly confined him in a psychiatric facility for 43 days.

“The Turkmen government doesn’t tolerate public criticism of its policies, no matter how mild,” Denber said. Given the government’s practice of detaining journalists if it doesn’t like what they write, we are extremely concerned about Rovshen Yazmuhamedov’s safety and well-being. The police should immediately release Yazmuhamedov or charge him with a credible offense.”

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