August 4, 2017
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah
President Olympic Council of Asia and,
Association of National Olympic Committees
P.O. Box 6706, 32042, Hawalli, Kuwait
Via fax: +965 25734973
Via email: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah,
It is less than 50 days before the opening of the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in September, and we wish to urgently inform you about a series of death threats and harassment against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Turkmenistan correspondent, Soltan Achilova, that took place in late July. We urge you to raise these incidents with the Turkmen authorities, promptly and publicly condemn the threats against Achilova, and work to ensure that she and other independent contributors to media outlets can work in Turkmenistan without undue interference and fear of retaliation.
The attacks against Achilova are only the latest developments in the Turkmen authorities’ intensified, targeted harassment and intimidation against correspondents for Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen language service of RFE/RL—the only foreign news outlet that has a Turkmen-language edition. The authorities’ campaign against RFE/RL, in turn, is but one example of the government’s poor press freedom and human rights record that cannot be reconciled with the Olympic Charter’s principles on press freedoms and on human dignity. The Olympic Charter enshrines press freedom and human dignity as values the Olympic movement should uphold across all sporting federations. We urge you to ensure that the OCA fulfills its mandate to uphold the Olympic Charter’s principles.
Achilova, 67, is one of the extremely few independent correspondents courageously working inside Turkmenistan. Her work for Radio Azatlyk covers a variety of social issues, such as drinking water shortages, long lines to buy groceries, and problems in Turkmenistan’s healthcare system, among many others. Achilova has repeatedly been targeted for her work, as have her Radio Azatlyk colleagues.
You may recall that in our December 2016 and February 2017 letters to you, we described the attack and police harassment Achilova endured in November 2016. After it became public knowledge that Achilova was assaulted and robbed by unknown assailants, Achilova’s access to her home internet and both her land line and mobile phones was blocked, presumably by the authorities. As a result, to access the internet for work, she was left with no choice but to use the public internet facilities provided by the US Embassy Information Resource Center in Ashgabat.
Achilova told us that for four days in a row in late July, several unknown men harassed and intimidated her on her way to and from the Center, and as she attempted to take photographs as part of her journalism work:
- On July 27, Achilova was on a public bus traveling home from the Center, when she tried to take a photograph of the scenery outside on her mobile phone. A man she did not know grabbed her and accused her of photographing his sister and posting the photo on the internet. The man was yelling at and insulting her and said that she should stop taking photos.
- On July 28, after visiting the Center, Achilova attempted to take a photograph of a young woman watering flowers (she had consented to be photographed), when an unknown young man grabbed Achilova’s arms, twisted them, and began yelling at her for taking photographs. Another woman who Achilova knew came out of the Center, helped Achilova, and accompanied her to the bus stop. The man followed them and then followed Achilova onto the bus. During the entire bus ride, he stood next to Achilova and said, “you are disgracing [your] country,” insulted her, and made vague threats. None of the other passengers on the bus intervened. The man followed Achilova to her apartment building and then remained near the building for the rest of day.
- On July 29, Achilova had planned to take photos of the city-wide cycling marathon, held in Ashgabat at the initiative of President Berdymukhamedov, to mark the 50-day countdown to the 5th AIMAG. Fearing for her safety, Achilova asked her daughter to accompany her. When they walked out of their apartment building, they noticed a man they did not know, who followed them to the bus stop and onto the bus. He stood next to them, and when Achilova attempted to photograph cyclists outside, the man grabbed her arm. To protect her mother, Achilova’s daughter grabbed the man’s arm, and the man threatened to “destroy” Achilova and her camera. He violently yelled and cursed at Achilova, saying such things as she had “one foot in the grave,” and that she is already dead. The man also threatened to break her daughter’s legs, and said to her, “if your mother croaks now, how will you live?” Again, other passengers on the bus did not intervene. This incident frightened Achilova and her daughter, so they decided to return home. The man followed them home, swearing the whole time.
- On July 31, the same man who followed and abused her on July 29, approached Achilova at the bus station. Although he was not wearing a uniform, he claimed he was from the police and that he was instructed to prevent Achilova from taking any photographs. He said “if [you] take out your camera, “it’ll be the end of you.” He followed Achilova to the Center, waited for her outside, and continued to follow her and her daughter to the local bazaar and back home later that day.
As we noted in our November 2016 letter, the Turkmen government’s treatment of media freedoms is an affront to the Olympic Charter’s embrace of press freedom in every conceivable way. Freedom of expression and association are subject to draconian restrictions, which the authorities enforce by threatening, harassing, or imprisoning those who dare to question government policies, however modestly. There are no independent publications in Turkmenistan, and the government has severely punished journalists and other individuals for providing reporting to foreign news organizations.
For example, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a freelance contributor to Radio Azatlyk, has been in prison since July 2015 on bogus drug charges, after he took photographs of an amusement park on the Caspian Sea coast. Gaspar Matalaev, an activist who provided photographs documenting child labor in the cotton harvest, is serving a three-year prison sentence on bogus fraud charges.
Internet access in Turkmenistan remains limited and heavily state-controlled, and authorities routinely block all or parts of websites of certain international news agencies.
In its annual report issued in February, Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkmenistan 178th out of 180 countries surveyed in its ranking of press freedom 2017 and Freedom House labeled Turkmenistan’s media environment as in “the world’s 10 worst-rated”.
When viewed in this context, it is clear that the July 27-31 series of threats and harassment against Achilova were not carried out independently by private actors, but were orchestrated by the authorities, to stifle independent voices in advance of the Games.
Achilova’s health has deteriorated since the July incidents, and she fears going outside on her own. She refuses to stop her independent reporting, despite the constant surveillance and intimidation.
The Turkmen government’s extreme and sustained repression of press freedoms and free speech and its persistent degradation of human dignity blatantly contravenes the letter and spirit of the Olympic Charter, by which the OCA is governed. We urge the OCA to state publicly its commitment to upholding the human rights principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter and to convey what this means in practice to the Turkmen government.
Turkmenistan’s human rights record makes the likelihood of attacks on and violations of fundamental human rights in the context of the Games wholly foreseeable. The incessant repression of media freedom could also have a negative impact on the work of journalists covering the Games, including their ability to operate freely and to cover a range of topics in the host city and country.
We encourage you to take this opportunity to seek a positive legacy from the Games and avoid them being stained by severe violations of press freedoms and fundamental human rights. We urge you to raise these issues with the authorities in Turkmenistan, to call on them to free unjustly imprisoned journalists and activists, to end the harassment of Achilova and other independent voices, and ensure full press freedom in the lead-up and during the Games. It should be made clear that these steps are essential for a positive outcome of the Games.
Thank you for your prompt attention to these concerns and for using your role as a force for good in the Olympic movement.
Europe and Central Asia
Human Rights Watch
Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights
CC: Thomas Bach, President
International Olympic Committee