* Says police warned journalist of “consequences” for report
* Relatives said pressured to sign statement against him
* Rights group says only N.Korea worse in attitude to media
By Dmitry Solovyov
ALMATY, Oct 6 (Reuters) - A U.S.-based media watchdog demanded on Thursday the release of a radio journalist jailed for five years in Turkmenistan, saying his sentence was punishment for his independent reporting.
Dovletmurad Yazguliyev, a local correspondent for the Turkmen service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was sentenced on Wednesday on charges of inciting a relatives’s suicide attempt, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement.
“This conviction is none other than an attempt to silence an independent reporter,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Programme Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We call on the appeals court to overturn the verdict.”
“Yazguliyev and his colleagues believe he is being punished for his critical journalism,” CPJ said.
Turkmen officials could not be reached for comment. Thursday was an official day off in the Central Asian nation.
Yazguliyev was among the first to break the news of deadly arms storage explosions in the town of Abadan near the Turkmen capital Ashgabat in July. He was summoned by police and warned of “consequences” if he did not stop reporting on it, the regional website Fergana News reported (www.fergananews.com)
After several days of official silence, a special Turkmen government commission issued a terse report, saying that 15 people had been killed by the explosions in Abadan, and strongman President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said “a new, modern town would be built on this place”.
Opposition reports had said hundreds of people had died.
Oguljamal Yazliyeva, RFE/RL’s Turkmen service director, said authorities had pressured Yazguliyev’s relatives to sign a statement saying he had tried to get his sister-in-law to commit suicide, CPJ said. His relatives later tried to withdraw the statement to no avail.
The summary trial lasted for roughly two days without a defence lawyer. Yazliyeva told CPJ the journalist’s family members, including the one who attempted suicide, testified in court in his defence, but their statements were ignored.
Human rights groups say Turkmenistan, run by Berdymukhamedov with virtually unlimited powers, is one of the most reclusive and oppressive countries of the world.
In its 2010 press freedom review, U.S.-based human rights body Freedom House put Turkmenistan in the penultimate, 195th place, saying only communist North Korea’s attitude to independent media was worse.
Berdymukhamedov, a 54-year-old professional dentist, is widely expected to win a Feb. 12 election to run the nation of 5.5 million for another five years.
Turkmenistan holds the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves, and Berdymukhamedov has sought to mend ties with the West to start supplying the fuel to Europe to bypass former imperial master Russia. (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Philippa Fletcher)