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Freelance journalist held incommunicado in Turkmenistan

This statement was originally published rsf.org on 31 July 2015.

Reporters Without Borders is extremely concerned about Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a freelance reporter who went missing near the western city of Turkmenbashi on 7 July. It was finally reported on 29 July that he is being held incommunicado by the authorities.

Nepeskuliev works for the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the Netherlands-based news website Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN).

He called his family on 7 July from Avaza, a Caspian Sea town near Turkmenbashi where he was doing research for future stories, and he told he would return that afternoon. But he never came back.

After several days, worried relatives contacted a police station in Turkmenbashi, where the police suggested he might have drowned. After further extensive enquiries, the family finally discovered on 28 July that he is being held in a prison in Akdash, near Avaza, for alleged possession of drugs, a charge they categorically deny.

“Saparmamed Nepeskuliev's arbitrary detention is all the more worrying because torture is systematically used in Turkmen jails,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“Given the Turkmen government's attitude towards independent news media, it is clear that his imprisonment is linked to his journalistic activities. We urge the authorities to end the secrecy surrounding his current status and to release him without delay.”

Nepeskuliev mainly covers social and infrastructural issues in the area around Turkmenbashi and his nearby hometown, Balkanabat, including the quality of the water, the state of the roads and access to healthcare.

In late May, he produced a photo-reportage for RFE/RL about a luxury residential complex for senior officials. He has also highlighted the lack of concern by the local authorities about the state of public services and the rising cost of basic foodstuffs.

"Saparmamed is a very brave journalist and a civil activist who truly loves his hometown and wants to change things for the better by reporting on acute social concerns,” ATN editor in chief Ruslan Miatiev told Reporters Without Borders.

“His articles and photos for ATN always triggered discussion and found support among the residents of the region where he lives. I have no doubts that Saparmamed's persecution is entirely politically motivated."

Media freedom is non-existent in Turkmenistan, an information black hole that is ranked 178th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, above only North Korea and Eritrea.

Turkmenistan's only independent media are based abroad, and reporting for them from inside the country is very risky. Osmankuly Hallyev, who had reported for RFE/RL's Turkmen service for years, had to stop in June after he was interrogated and threatened and several members of his family lost their jobs because of his work.

Several of his colleagues have been arrested in recent years and mistreatment was almost certainly to blame for RFE/RL reporter Ogulsapar Muradova's death in detention in September 2006.

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