Turkmenistan: Man Gets Four-Year Prison Term for Reposting Photo of WHO Delegation

On September 15, Nurgeldi Halykov was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment by Bagtyyarlyk district court in Ashgabat. The 26-year-old had sent turkmen.news a photograph of members of a visiting World Health Organization delegation, though he had not taken the picture himself. Nurgeldi was actually convicted on a fabricated charge of fraud after a friend wrote a complaint about his alleged failure to repay a loan.

Nurgeldi Halykov

The original photograph was taken on July 12 during the WHO delegation’s visit to study Turkmenistan’s preparedness for COVID-19. An Ashgabat resident snapped the WHO team members sitting at the poolside in the capital’s Yyldyz hotel. She put the photograph on Instagram where Nurgeldi saw it and thought he should send it to turkmen.news. Nurgeldi had gone to the same school as the young woman.

The next day, July 13, Halykov’s acquaintance removed him from her Instagram friends list, then asked if he had circulated the photo of the WHO representatives. A few hours later (around 17.00), the young man was called to the police station, after which contact with him was lost.

For reposting this photo Halykov was given a prison term

The young woman had been found through CCTV footage. She and six of her friends who had been relaxing at the pool together were summoned to the police department. The police looked through all her photographs, including personal ones, restored previously deleted photos, and read all her correspondence with other people too. Then they began to study the contacts in her address book and her social media friends. After this Nurgeldi was summoned to the police station.

Over the next few days turkmen.news tried to find out Halykov’s whereabouts, but his family refused to talk about what had happened, saying that they had “more than enough problems.” There’s information that initially the family was told that Halykov had been given 10 or 15 days detention. They expected him home at the end of this period, but there was no sign of Halykov in 15 days time or later.

On July 26 (13 days after he had been summoned to the police), turkmen.news received a message from Halykov himself. He wrote that he had supposedly been summoned because of a $5,000 debt, which he took on at the start of the year. The creditors had allegedly written a complaint about him, and now he was being summoned to the police every day. Turkmen.news had not heard that Halykov had a debt or that he had to repay it. We have reason to believe that he would have told us about the problem. But we did not manage to get any explanation, as he did not get in touch, or appear online, again.

At the start of October it turned out that the non-payment of the debt had been declared to be fraud, which was committed repeatedly and caused significant loss. The Bagtyyarlyk district court confirmed to turkmen.news that the young man had received a four-year sentence on September 15.

Turkmen.news declares: This case was fabricated because of the photograph of the WHO delegation.

It is widespread practice in Turkmenistan to use false criminal accusations to convict people who are really considered “enemies of the regime.” Recently, lawyer Pygambergeldi Allaberdiyev was sentenced to six years on a “hooliganism” charge. The lawyer, who was active in opposition chat rooms, had been attacked in the street by a young man, but it was the attacker that was declared the victim.

Turkmen.news found out that the complaint against Nurgeldi Halykov had been written by Yuriy Rogusskiy, a deputy tennis champion of Turkmenistan. Yuriy used to be a close friend of Nurgeldi’s, but he removed Halykov from his Instagram friends and deleted all the photos and videos showing them together.

Yuriy Rogusskiy

We don’t know if Rogusskiy was forced to sign the complaint against Halykov or not, but the case closely resembles that of Gaspar Matalaev, who in 2016 carried out independent monitoring of the use of forced labor in the cotton harvest. Like Halykov, Matalaev was arrested a few days after the publication of his photo report from the cotton fields, then his friend Madina Kurbanova was forced to write a complaint against him. Allegedly Gaspar took money from her, promising to find her work in a branch of the Chinese company CNPC. Gaspar admitted his “guilt” under electric shock torture at the police department. We are sure that Nurgeldi Halykov has been tortured too.

In October reports came in that Halykov would supposedly be released under an amnesty on December 12. This is why the young man’s case was not publicized earlier. Turkmenistan’s special services deliberately raise friends’ and relatives’ hopes in order to maintain their silence: best not rock the boat. This is borne out by the experience of Gaspar Matalaev and of activist Saparmamed Nepeskuliev. Criminal cases were cooked up against both of them for exercising their right to find and disseminate information. It eventually became clear that all the law-enforcement promises were designed to stop the convicted men’s friends and relatives reporting their arbitrary treatment to human rights organizations for fear they would be excluded from the amnesty. As a result, both Nepeskuliev and Matalaev served their three-year sentences in full.

The WHO mission’s trip to Turkmenistan was not secret anyway, and was reported by the official media. The Yyldyz hotel is a public place, where people can freely take photographs. But the special services were angry, not with the young woman who published the photo on Instagram, but with the young man who sent the photo to turkmen.news. In other words, Nurgeldi Halykov has been punished for his contact with members of the independent press. There are no grounds for this either in the laws of Turkmenistan or international law.

Turkmen.news is working with American lawyers to draw up a petition to the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. We are also preparing documents for the U.S. government and the European Union. In their dealings with Turkmenistan its Western partners should bear in mind that freedom of expression is severely suppressed in the country and criminal cases are fabricated, that the law does not work properly, and that there are hundreds of political prisoners in Turkmenistan’s prisons.