In an interview with RFE/RL on October 6, U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called the charges against correspondent Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev “politically based” and “retaliation for his work” for RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk.
Rep. Berman told RFE/RL, “By doing this interview and speaking out on this issue, I hope [it] will help to persuade the Turkmen officials — during the time that Mr. Yazkuliyev is appealing his case — that they will reexamine the facts in the light of the unfairness of the trial and come to the correct decision and free him.”
Yazkuliyev was sentenced to five years in prison on October 5 on charges of “influencing or abetting” an attempted suicide by a family member. In a written appeal to Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and the country’s general prosecutor, Yazkuliyev’s relatives sought to retract false statements against him that they had been forced to make by Turkmen authorities. His relatives assert that the entire case is an effort to intimidate Yazkuliyev for his journalistic activities and say they have “sufficient documentation to prove that [Yazkuliyev’s] case is politically motivated.” Yazkuliyev, who stood trial in summary proceedings without a lawyer, has 10 days to appeal his case.
Yazkuliyev had received a stern warning from Turkmen security officials in July after blogging about deadly explosions in the city of Abadan. He was told he would be charged with “disseminating defamatory information through the media” and “causing national, social, and religious provocations” if he continued to blog about sensitive information.
Rep. Berman said, “The government of Turkmenistan has to understand that the people of Turkmenistan are entitled to freedom of expression and that for Turkmenistan to evolve into a truly just country, they have to develop democratic governance, respect different opinions, ensure freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. I have written the president of Turkmenistan six or seven months ago about this issue, apparently to no avail. The government seems to be [pursuing] the same kind of harassment and criminalization of conduct that in a free society would not be tolerated.”
Commenting on the U.S.-Turkmenistan diplomatic relationship, Rep. Berman said, “I think Turkmenistan wants a cooperative relationship with the United States and I’m working with the State Department and with RFE/RL to try and bring pressure on the government of Turkmenistan, to understand that they can never have that kind of really good bilateral relationship with the United States when incidents like these continue to happen.”
Rep. Berman added, “Of course it’s a sovereign country and we can’t tell the government what to do, but these kinds of things certainly hurt the Turkmenistan-American relationship.”
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