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Turkmenistan: President Seeks To Silence Dissidents

  • Bruce Pannier

A prominent critic of the Turkmen government was arrested last week in the central Asian country after he spoke out against the increased authority of President Saparmurat Niyazov. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports on the case of Nurberdy Nurmammedov and on the growing crackdown on dissent.

Prague, 12 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Nurberdy Nurmammedov is a long-time foe of Turkmenistan's government. Last Wednesday (Jan. 5) he was jailed.

Nurmammedov is one of the few vocal critics of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov left inside Turkmenistan. Most have fled to avoid certain imprisonment. The stifling of dissenters has been common in Turkmenistan since the former Soviet republic became independent in 1991, but the timing of this latest arrest may portend worse to come.

Officially, the 57-year-old Nurmammedov is charged with hooliganism and threatening to commit murder. But our correspondent reports the real reason for his arrest is likely his public comments ahead of parliamentary elections last month. Speaking to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service prior to the elections, Nurmammedov criticized the government, saying the constitution was internally contradictory and ultimately gave the president far too much power.

"In article 45 of the constitution, it is written that the highest organ in the country is the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council). This fourth branch is confusing and greatly weakens the political system. According to article 51, the Mejlis (parliament) should fulfill the decisions of the Halk Maslahaty. But article 65 of the constitution gives the president extra powers at the expense of the rights of the Mejlis to create specific laws. By this means, the rights of the Mejlis are diminished and those of the president increased. It makes the parliament simply an office of the president."

Nurmammedov's fears were quickly realized. The first major act of the newly elected parliament was to adopt a resolution naming Niyazov president for life.

Nurmammedov's history of opposition to the Turkmen government dates back to Soviet times. He is a leader of the Turkmen opposition party Agzybirlik, which was formed in 1989 but never formally registered. Several times he went to court to defend himself against charges of organizing illegal public meetings. And he was one of the first in Turkmenistan to condemn the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow. Days after the coup was crushed, Nurmammedov was already warning former republics and other countries to beware of an impending dictatorship by Niyazov.

As the Soviet Union collapsed and Turkmenistan became independent, the Turkmen government exercised more control over dissent than it did in the days of glasnost. When then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker visited Turkmenistan in February 1992, Nurmammedov was kept under house arrest.

Life has not been easier for Nurmammedov since then. After his arrest last Wednesday his house was reportedly searched for narcotics and weapons.

A fax sent on Friday with Nurmammedov's signature says he is in the Ahalskii region in police custody. It says the man he is accused of planning to kill, Chariev Amanmeret, has denied the charges. The Moscow-based human rights group Memorial released a statement citing a "dissident source in Moscow" as supporting Nurmammedov's claim that Amanmeret "officially declared that he was against the criminal investigation of Nurmammedov, with whom he has been friends since elementary school."

In his fax, Nurmammedov said he is beginning a hunger strike and requested medical supplies be brought to his place of detention.

The U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch condemned the arrest, saying that by jailing Nurmammedov, "Turkmenistan has once again proved that it is one of the world's most repressive states."

Nurmammedov's arrest is not the only recent example of a crackdown on dissent. Also last week, Turkmen authorities seized the home of dissident writer Yovshan Annnagurbanov, who lives in exile. And they seized the flat of Khudayberdy Khallyev, a journalist who works for Radio Liberty's Turkmen Service.

Why the crackdown now? It is possible that being named president for life made Niyazov confident enough to eliminate his critics. He may also simply be responding to the lack of enthusiasm for his new status. His state-approved lifetime rule generated no response from other CIS presidents.

The contrast between the Turkmen style of government and other CIS governments was made clear just two days after Niyazov was made lifetime president, when fellow CIS leader Boris Yeltsin stepped down from the Russian presidency. Suppression of public criticism at this juncture, especially from within Turkmenistan, would seem crucial.

Human Rights Watch was unequivocal in its condemnation, saying: "The recent declaration of Niyazov as president for life, his wiping out of any and all potential opponents, the total repression of religious freedom -- all of this should make Turkmenistan a pariah state."

That, however, is unlikely to happen. Turkmenistan has a wealth of natural gas and oil, and it borders both Iran and Afghanistan. Such financial and geo-political interests make Turkmenistan difficult to ignore.

Still, the deplorable record of human rights and political repression is growing for President Niyazov and his government. Niyazov may find criticism from outside Turkmenistan unavoidable and being leader for life less pleasant in years to come.

(Guvanch Geraev, Muhammed Zarif Nazar, and Aina Khallyeva of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)