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article imageAchilova: A Turkmen reporter who persists despite attacks

By Christopher RICKLETON (AFP)     Feb 8, 2021 in World

Soltan Achilova, who found her calling late in life, may have fallen into one of the hardest jobs in the world: being a reporter in secretive and repressive Turkmenistan.

The 72-year-old has been systematically attacked for shining a light on life in the closed Central Asian country and undermining the dictatorship's claims of presiding over an era of "might and happiness".

Her reports for newsrooms outside the ex-Soviet country have described how citizens have been unfairly dismissed from jobs, had their homes bulldozed or have to join long queues to buy subsidised food.

In an email to AFP, Achilova said the subjects for her articles "choose themselves... when you speak to ordinary people about the problems they face every day".

Her detailing of the human misery behind Turkmenistan's grand authoritarian displays won her a place this year on the podium for a prestigious international rights prize.

The Martin Ennals Award -- named in honour of a late British rights campaigner and backed by 10 of the world's leading rights organisations -- announces the winner February 11.

Achilova, who is barred from leaving Turkmenistan, has been shortlisted alongside jailed rights defenders Loujain al-Hathloul of Saudi Arabia and Yu Wensheng of China.

- 'Cameras are dangerous' -

The outlets that Achilova has written for, including Radio Free Europe and Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan are censored in the country of 5.5 million, where state propaganda monopolises the information sphere.

State harassment of the pensioner has grown more vicious in recent years against the backdrop of a long-term energy price slump and economic mismanagement that has seen incomes shrink and food prices surge.

In 2016 she was mowed down by a quartet of bicyclists in an attack that left her neck and head aching for months.

In 2018, when she was visiting relatives in a provincial town, two men grabbed her and punched her in the chest, knocking her over.

The attacks, which she attributes to the state, are often accompanied by attempts to steal or damage her camera.

"Cameras are dangerous for the authorities because they see things that they hide or refuse to acknowledge," Achilova wrote.

Like other energy-rich, rights poor nations, secretive Turkmenistan has turned to sport to bolster its international prestige.

Autocrat president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is regularly shown riding horses, pumping weights and taking race cars for spins in a bid to promote healthy lifestyles and sporting success.

This year Ashgabat plans to host the Track Cycling World Championships, while in 2017 it held the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.

During the build up to the indoor games, rights groups alleged that the government had forcibly evicted thousands of people without offering adequate compensation in a bid to beautify the white marble clad city.

- Bodies wrapped in cellophane -

Achilova, a trained accountant, might never have turned towards reporting had her own home and that of her son not been erased in similar fashion in 2006.

Authorities merely informed her that the house had been built illegally and the city was being "reconstructed" even though the plot remained empty long after the demolition.

After her attempts to seek justice by appealing to local authorities fell flat, she started raising her case with foreign media before deciding that journalism was her calling.

Farid Tukhbatullin, head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights group that oversees the Chronicles website, praised Achilova for her doggedness.

"She mastered the profession of journalism when she was over 50. Despite some poor health, she is always on the road, in search of people and their stories," Tukhbatullin told AFP.

Tough restrictions on movement around the country imposed last year to stop the spread of "dangerous infectious diseases" have limited Achilova's movements, robbing her readers of insights into the suffering of the provincial population.

Ironically, however, Turkmenistan continues to insist it is completely coronavirus-free, a boast Achilova dismisses out of hand.

"It's not true. We see we are losing our loved ones, acquaintances," she told AFP.

"The dead from the hospitals are handed to their relatives wrapped in cellophane, with a warning to bury without opening."

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