RFE/RL, HRW Welcome UN Finding On Turkmen Activist's 2006 Death In Custody

WASHINGTON -- RFE/RL and Human Rights Watch (HRW) on August 9 welcomed a finding by the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) that the government of Turkmenistan was responsible for the 2006 death in custody of a human rights activist.

In an opinion issued in May and made public this month, the UNHRC said that Ogulsapar Muradova, who was also a regular contributor to RFE/RL, was arrested and detained by the government of then-President Saparmurat Niyazov "for her journalistic and human rights work."

The committee also said the Turkmen government must conduct an impartial investigation into Muradova’s death, compensate her family, and rehabilitate her name.

In a statement, RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said the UN finding "confirms what rights groups have long contended: that the death of Ogulsapar Muradova was a politically motivated crime by Turkmen authorities because of her human rights advocacy and reporting."

Kent added that the finding was "particularly significant because of continuing government actions against the news service’s correspondents."

"Finally, there’s an authoritative [UN] acknowledgment of the Turkmen government’s responsibility for the monstrous torture and death" of Muradova, Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, said in a statement.

The Turkmen government should now identify all those responsible for Muradova’s death and hold them to account, Denber said, adding, "It’s been 12 years, but it’s never too late for justice."

Along with being an RFE/RL contributor, Muradova was co-founder of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, an independent rights group that works on issues regarding Turkmenistan from exile in Bulgaria. She reported on several hundred dissidents she identified as being imprisoned by Niyazov’s government in the Central Asian nation that has been subject to much international criticism over rights issues.

Muradova was arrested in June 2006 by police in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, and later convicted with two other activists -- including her brother Annadurdy Khadzhiyev -- on what the rights groups called "bogus charges" in a closed trial that lasted just two hours.

Muradova was sentenced to six years in prison. However, on September 13, 2006, her family was informed she had died in custody.

A government autopsy, the results of which were never released, reportedly found that Muradova died from blows to the back of her head.

After diplomatic intervention, Muradova's family was allowed to see her body. A family member reported seeing a deep cut in on her forehead, a dark mark around her neck that could indicate strangulation, open wounds on her hands, and severe bruising on her legs.

Rights groups cited unconfirmed information from a law enforcement official stating that Muradova died from torture during an interrogation. Another person told activists that a "suicide" was staged to cover the truth.

The government claimed Muradova died of natural causes and did not investigate her death.

In 2013, lawyers with the Open Society Justice Initiative filed a complaint to the UNHRC on behalf of Khadzhiyev. It alleged acts by the Turkmen government, including retaliation for her journalism and torture leading to her death in custody, that constitute violations of the state's obligations under the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.

In a response to the complaint issued on May 24 this year, the committee condemned the government’s conduct, drawing attention to its responsibility "to care for [the] life" of individuals who are arrested and detained; its failure to properly investigate allegations of torture and the cause of her death in custody, including its failure to release the results of an autopsy; and numerous violations of Muradova's due process rights.

The rights committee also called on the current government of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to "take all steps necessary to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future."

Journalists associated with RFE/RL and their family members have suffered harassment, violence, and imprisonment for decades in Turkmenistan, a country that ties with North Korea for the world’s worst record on press freedom, according to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2017 survey.

In 2014-15, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service lost half of its reporting network to a systematic, government-sponsored intimidation campaign, RFE/RL officials said.

The targeted campaign has continued into 2018, with veteran correspondent Soltan Achilova suffering at least eight physical assaults over the past 15 months, officials said.

Known locally as Azatlyk Radiosy, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has for 65 years provided audiences with accurate and uncensored news and information as an alternative to the state-run media monopoly.