September 15th marks two years since independent reporter Nurgeldi Halykov was imprisoned after sharing with an exiled news outlet a photograph of a World Health Organization (WHO) delegation visiting Ashgabat. A court sentenced him to four years’ imprisonment on bogus charges in retaliation for his contacts with independent media. We call on President Serdar Berdimuhamedov to act to ensure Halykov is released without delay and his unjust conviction is vacated.
On July 12, 2020 an Ashgabat resident took a photograph of WHO representatives at the Yyldyz Hotel and posted the photograph on Instagram. The WHO team were visiting Turkmenistan to examine the country’s level of preparedness for COVID-19. The visit, which the WHO had publicized in advance, took place in a context in which the government denied—and continues to deny, a single Covid-19 infection in the country. Nurgeldi Halykov had attended the same school as the young photographer, saw her photo on Instagram, and sent it to turkmen.news.
The next day, July 13, the young woman removed Halykov from her friends list on Instagram, then asked if it was him who had forwarded the photo. A few hours later Halykov was summoned to the police station after which contact with him was lost. Halykov’s family declined to speak to turkmen.news, referring to “problems.”
Later it became clear that Turkmen security services had identified Halykov’s acquaintance by studying CCTV footage from the hotel. She and six of her friends had been relaxing there and they were all summoned to the police department. The police looked through all of their photographs, restored previously deleted photos, read messages and the contacts lists in their telephones, and looked through their friends on Instagram. In other words, an entire investigation was conducted in order to find out how independent journalists obtained and published information about the WHO visit.
On July 26, 2020 Halykov managed to tell turkmen.news that police accused him of failing to return a debt of $5,000. After this, he dropped out of contact again. Turkmen.news learned only in October 2020 that on September 15 Bagtyyarlyk district court in Ashgabat had sentenced Halykov to four years in prison on fraud charges, for the alleged failure to repay a debt.
There are solid grounds to believe that the real reason for Halykov’s imprisonment is that he sent the photograph of the visiting WHO delegation, which he had not taken himself, to an independent media outlet and that the authorities found out about his previous work with this outlet during questioning. At the time of his arrest, Halykov had contributed to turkmen.news for several years, with his material being published without attribution to protect him from government retaliation.
International human rights NGOs and media watchdogs, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the Justice for Journalists Foundation, have expressed support for Halykov. A number of U.S. Congressmen have deemed Halykov a political prisoner and urged then-President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov to release him immediately. UN special rapporteurs requested Turkmenistan’s authorities for information on the case, but the government provided only a very formal answer with information on the article of the Criminal Code under which Halykov was sentenced and the prison facility where he is serving his term.
Nurgeldi Halykov has not been included in any of the mass amnesties declared in Turkmenistan to mark various holidays, while we are reliably informed that other prisoners sentenced under the same article of the Criminal Code have been freed. It looks as though the authorities have simply decided that he must serve the whole four-year term. Moreover, in Turkmenistan there is a danger that this term will be increased. The authorities often accuse prisoners, for example, of attacking prison staff and as a result add several years to their sentence.
Moreover, our organisations have received disturbing information indicating that Halykov repeatedly has been placed in solitary confinement as punishment following the publication of articles about his case by independent, Turkmenistan-covering media based abroad. These reports reinforce our concerns about his well-being in prison and demonstrate the need for reinforced attention to his case by the international community and for renewed calls for his release.
The right of citizens to freedom of speech is enshrined in the Constitution of Turkmenistan and the state also has international obligations to respect this right. Contact with independent media is not forbidden by law. If it were, there would be no need to fabricate cases under completely different articles in order to “punish” people for having such contacts. We call on the new president of Turkmenistan, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, to ensure a review Nurgeldi Halykov’s case, his prompt release from prison, and accountability for those responsible for his persecution. In the modern world, built on information technology, no one should serve a sentence for forwarding a link to a publication on social media or other information to media outlets.
A statement signed by:
Committee to Protect Journalists
Reporters sans Frontiers
Human Rights Watch
International Partnership for Human Rights
Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Justice for Journalists Foundation
Defenders in Development Campaign
Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights