Letters   |   Bulgaria, Turkmenistan

CPJ urges Rice to seek probe in Turkmen journalist's death

September 21, 2007

The Hon. Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20520

Via Facsimile: +1 202 647 2283

Dear Secretary Rice:

In advance of your meeting in New York with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov during the 62nd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Committee to Protect Journalists draws your attention to the unexplained death of an independent journalist in Turkmenistan.

Ogulsapar Muradova, Ashgabat correspondent for the Turkmen Service of the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, died in state custody in September 2006 after being sentenced to six years in prison on spurious charges in a summary, closed-door trial. A year after authorities handed Muradova's battered body to her family, the circumstances surrounding her death in government custody remain unexplained. Authorities have resisted international calls for an independent investigation into her death while failing to release official autopsy results.

We urge you to include Muradova's case on the agenda for your coming meeting with President Berdymukhammedov. We are encouraged by remarks this week by Evan Feigenbaum, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, pledging U.S. engagement in the new Turkmenistan, including in the sphere of democracy-building and fostering human rights. "We will never--never--turn a blind eye to problems," Mr. Feigenbaum said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, "but we do see possibility of change. And if a transforming Turkmenistan can emerge as a success story in its region, we want to be a part of that transformation."

In the spirit of turning a new page in U.S.-Turkmen relations, we encourage you to address the many questions surrounding Muradova's death in prison under former leader Saparmurat Niyazov, and to ask President Berdymukhammedov for his personal involvement in uncovering the truth about her death. The president's engagement in bringing justice in Muradova's death would signal Turkmenistan's readiness to become a part of a law-based international community.

Muradova, 58, who covered human rights issues for RFE/RL, died in prison sometime in September 2006. Her body was released to her family on September 14 of that year.

She had been arrested on June 18 on a spurious charge of possessing ammunition, held incommunicado for two months, and denied legal counsel. The day after she was arrested, President Niyazov called her a traitor to her motherland on national television. She was convicted and sentenced to six years imprisonment on August 25 after a closed-door trial that lasted all of a few minutes, then placed in a women's prison in the northern city of Dashoguz that is notorious for abuse, according to CPJ sources and RFE/RL.

Muradova's body had a large head wound and bruises around the neck, according to the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, which spoke with the journalist's adult children before the family's phone lines were cut. RFE/RL's head of Turkmen Service, Aleksandr Narodetsky, also said the children reported that their mother had a head wound.

The foundation, relying on witness accounts, said a dazed and incoherent Muradova had already been forced to confess to taking part in a foreign conspiracy to smear the country. In addition to her work for RFE/RL, Muradova had monitored human rights for the foundation. The health and status of two human rights activists, tried along with her and convicted on similar ammunition charges, also remain unknown. Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadzhiyev had been sentenced to seven years each in the same closed trial.

Muradova's arrest was preceded by an escalating series of attacks. She told colleagues that security agents were following her and were threatening to imprison her and her children. In April 2006, her mobile and land phone lines were turned off. The day before her arrest, arsonists set her elderly mother's home on fire. Muradova's three adult children--Maral, Berdy, and Sona--were themselves arrested on June 19 and held for two weeks.

At his February inauguration, President Berdymukhammedov pledged social reforms that could open Turkmenistan, albeit cautiously, to an international presence and cooperation. His visit to the United States and his September 26 address to the General Assembly--the first time a Turkmen head of state has attended since 1995--is a unique opportunity to engage the new leader on human rights and press freedom. Uncovering the truth about Ogulsapar Muradova's death, as well as revealing the fates of co-defendants Amanklychev and Khadzhiyev, will be an important first step toward mending Turkmenistan's press freedom and human rights record.

Thank you for your consideration of this urgent matter. We await your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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