Human Rights Watch urges Belarus to free Turkmen dissident
Belarusian authorities are holding a former journalist from Turkmenistan on an extradition request by the Turkmen government, Human Rights Watch said on Saturday. They should immediately release the former journalist, Chary Annamuradov, and under no circumstances extradite or otherwise return him to Turkmenistan, where he would face torture and ill-treatment in custody.
Annamuradov, 58, worked as an independent journalist in Turkmenistan in the 1990s but had to flee the country in 1999 due to persecution and obtained asylum in Sweden in 2003. He has both Swedish and Russian citizenship and continued to work as a journalist until 2008.
“The Turkmen government has a long record of ruthlessly persecuting critics, including journalists,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If Annamuradov is returned to Turkmenistan, there is little doubt the government would unjustly jail and abuse him.”
Turkmenistan is a closed country, ruled by an extremely repressive government. Turkmenistan’s authorities allow no media freedom whatsoever and commonly use criminal charges to seek retribution against critics.
Belarusian border police arrested Annamuradov on July 19, 2016, when he arrived at passport control in the Minsk airport. He was traveling from Sweden to Minsk on vacation with his 16-year-old daughter. Annamuradov’s family told Human Rights Watch that the police held both of them for four hours, then released his daughter but told Annamuradov he was under arrest. His daughter subsequently returned to Sweden.
Annamuradov’s family has learned that Belarussian authorities arrested him because he is wanted in Turkmenistan in connection with criminal fraud charges filed in 2006.
“Belarusian authorities have no legitimate grounds to continue to hold Annamuradov in custody,” Denber said. “He has been granted asylum in Sweden to protect him from the very government Belarus says they are acting on behalf of. They should release him immediately and let him return to Sweden.”
Annamuradov was traveling on his Russian passport to avoid the need to obtain a Belarusian visa, as Russian citizens do not need visas to enter Belarus. His family said it was the first time Annamuradov had traveled to any country in the post-Soviet region since he received asylum in Sweden more than a decade ago.
In 1993, Annamuradov became a correspondent in Turkmenistan for the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, covering such issues as Turkmenistan’s political prisoners, ethnic minorities, and other social issues. He and his family faced harassment in retribution for his work, and in 1996, Turkmen police arrested him on bogus smuggling and numerous other trumped-up criminal charges. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1997, but was released under amnesty in 1999, after serving two years.
Annamuradov’s family told Human Rights Watch that later in 1999, police again detained Annamuradov and beat him severely, but released him the same day. He fled Turkmenistan soon thereafter, first to Russia, only to be hounded by Turkmen security services, and then to Belarus. Meanwhile, Turkmen security services repeatedly detained and threatened his wife, who was still in Turkmenistan, and his brother, to get them to reveal Annamuradov’s whereabouts.
Annamuradov continued to write, using pseudonyms, about Turkmenistan’s political prisoners, ethnic minorities, and other social issues, for Radio Liberty’s Turkmen service, Deutsche Welle, and an opposition website, Gungadar. In 2008, Annamuradov stopped working as a journalist.
The Turkmen government controls all print and electronic media in the country, and reporters for foreign media outlets often cannot get visas to enter Turkmenistan. Authorities have repeatedly targeted Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the only source of Turkmen-language alternative news available in the country.
In 2015, a court sentenced Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a freelance correspondent for RFE/RL, to three years in prison on trumped-up drug charges. That same year, it also forced three other correspondents to cease working for RFE/RL.
“The Belarusian authorities have held Annamuradov for a full month now, based on an antiquated wanted list from a government that persecutes journalists, and specially has already persecuted him,” Denber said. “Belarus should end this travesty and release Annamuradov.”