(Berlin) – A Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Turkmenistan correspondent was questioned by police on October 25, 2016, then assaulted and robbed by unknown assailants, Human Rights Watch said today. The assault on Soltan Achilova, 67, was the latest in a series of attacks on the media outlet’s correspondents in Turkmenistan.
Achilova works with Radio Azatlyk, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen service, the only source of Turkmen-language alternative news available in the country. She covers a variety of social issues, such as drinking water shortages, long lines to buy groceries, and healthcare problems for the service. Achilova is one of very few correspondents reporting from inside Turkmenistan and has repeatedly been targeted for her work, as have her Radio Azatlyk colleagues. Turkmenistan is a closed country under an authoritarian government, which does not allow media freedom.
“Achilova’s ordeal was clearly yet another orchestrated attempt to silence a critic,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Journalists should be able to work without being assaulted or detained by police for doing their job.”
Turkmen authorities should ensure that Achilova and other correspondents like her can carry out their work without reprisal or undue interference, Human Rights Watch said.
Achilova told Human Rights Watch that on October 25, she saw people in line outside a local supermarket in Ashgabat, and decided to take some photos. One of the supermarket’s salesmen noticed her, and together with a policeman who had been nearby, started to chase her.
Achilova went to a nearby hospital, where she needed to pick up some test results, and sat down on an outdoor bench. The police officer and the salesman approached and questioned her about why she was taking photos. Achilova said she was from Radio Azatlyk and was doing her job.
The policeman would not allow her to leave. About 15 minutes later, another policeman in civilian clothes, who identified himself to her as a deputy head of the Berkararlyk district police station, arrived and questioned her about her family, where she lived, who she lived with, what she had photographed, and checked her identification documents. He accused her of taking photos without permission and demanded that she delete all the photos from her camera, and follow him to the police station. Achilova refused.
The deputy police chief eventually left, but the other police officer held Achilova outside in the hospital bench area in temperatures of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius (37-41 Fahrenheit) for two and a half hours, then released her.
However, as she was walking away, three men and a woman suddenly approached her. The woman accused Achilova of photographing her, and one of the men, who claimed to be her brother, demanded that Achilova delete the photos from her camera. Achilova did not recognize the woman as someone she had photographed in the line, but said that she would delete any photos of her when she got home.
The group began yelling at and insulting Achilova. Two of the men blocked Achilova from the view of bystanders and one of them twisted her arms, while another reached for her bag, took out the camera, and scattered her personal belongings on the ground.
Achilova tried to collect her belongings and then chased the group but did not recover her camera. Achilov’s wallet and glasses also disappeared in the scuffle. Her arm was bruised in the assault, and she became ill, she believes, from having been made to wait outside in the cool weather for several hours.
This was not her first assault. In December 2014, several men attacked her while she was reporting from a bazaar, took her phone and camera, and took her to a police station. Police detained and questioned Achilova and released her after two hours. Her possessions were returned, but her photos were deleted from the camera.
The Turkmen government controls virtually all print and electronic media. Internet access remains heavily state-controlled; and many websites are blocked, including those of foreign news organizations. Reporters for foreign media outlets often cannot get visas to enter Turkmenistan.
In 2015, a court sentenced Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a free-lance correspondent for Radio Azatlyk, to three years in prison on trumped-up drug charges. That same year, it also forced three other correspondents to cease working for Radio Azatlyk.
“Media in Turkmenistan are already almost completely under government control,” Denber said. “Turkmenistan’s international partners should promptly condemn the threats to the few remaining journalists courageous enough to try to do independent reporting inside the country.”