When the leader of Turkmenistan's opposition party goes on trial today (Friday), the official charge is attempted murder, but most observers consider that the real reason for his trial is his political views. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that in a country considered one of the most repressive in the world, Nurberdy Nurmammedov stands out as a rare figure of personal integrity.
Prague, 25 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Nurberdy Nurmammedov, the founder and leader of the long-banned Turkmen opposition party Agzybirlik, is facing charges of "hooliganism with intent to commit murder." Opponents of Turkmenistan's government and international organizations say the real reason Nurmammedov is in court is his continued criticism of the authoritarian government of President Saparmurat Niyazov.
Trials against government opponents in Turkmenistan are usually conducted behind closed doors. But this time, representatives of Western embassies are invited to attend the trial and get a rare glimpse of Turkmenistan's justice system in action.
Nurmammedov has a long history of opposing Niyazov. In 1989, Nurmammedov founded Agzybirlik, which was briefly registered by the Academy of Sciences in the then-Soviet republic of Turkmenia. This was the during Mikhail Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union, and many people across the country took advantage of Moscow's loosening of controls over opposition movements. Niyazov, then the first (Communist) party secretary of Turkmenia, offered Nurmammedov the post of minister of transportation. Nurmammedov refused.
In March 1991, Niyazov called for a Turkmen national referendum on the future of the USSR at roughly the same time that Gorbachev was proposing a union-wide referendum. Niyazov favored remaining in the Soviet Union, but Nurmammedov thought differently. In his words of that time:
"It's worth noting that we do not know what the new union would look like. Nobody knows what it is going to be because it is being created anew, but on the old grounds. At the same time, it is not too difficult to imagine a free and independent Turkmenistan. Independence -- meaning that the people would be the owner of its freedom, rights, spiritual and natural values, and means of production -- is [preferable]. Therefore we will probably vote for freedom. Let God be your friend, Turkmen!"
Later the same year, when there was an failed attempt to overthrow Gorbachev, Niyazov defended the existence of the USSR, while Nurmammedov openly called for independence. Since then, Nurmammedov has never stopped expressing his views, which often run contrary to the government. Such was the case prior to his arrest in early January (Jan. 5).
The month before, (December 1999), two controversial events took place in Turkmenistan. The first was parliamentary elections. The electoral process was judged to be so far short of democratic by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, that the 54-state organization did not send anyone to observe or assess the actual vote. At the time, Nurmammedov criticized the elections in an interview with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.
In late December, when the newly elected parliament moved to make Niyazov president for life, Nurmammedov spoke out again in another interview with RFE/RL. Barely a week after Niyazov was named president for life, Nurmammedov was arrested.
Immediately afterwards, the international monitoring organization Human Rights Watch publicly criticized the arrest. Holly Cartner, the director of the group's Europe and Central Asia Division, said that Turkmenistan had again proved itself to be one of the world's most repressive states.
The Russian human-rights group Memorial said that the man (Chariev Amanmeret) whom Nurmamedov was accused of seeking to murder has said he is against putting Nurmammedov on trial.
The criticisms from the human-rights groups probably influenced the Turkmen government's surprise decision to invite foreigners to attend Nurmamedov's trial. In Turkmenistan, suspects are often held for weeks without being charged, and verdicts are sometimes not made public until days or even weeks after they are reached. Once behind bars, those sentenced effectively vanish from public view. On occasion, their deaths during incarceration are made public long after they occur.
Nurmammedov is one of a very few opposition figures who have chosen to remain in Turkmenistan. Many were jailed, and many others left the country fearing jail. But Nurmammedov stayed -- in a nation rich in resources, but poor in all other respects.
Turkmenistan has great oil and natural gas wealth, but remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The government says people earn as much as $40 a month, but in fact they earn no more than one-quarter of that sum. People who live in the capital, Ashgabat, worry daily about water and electricity, and the situation is worse in rural areas.
Meanwhile, President Niyazov lives in a palace that cost $80 million to build. Niyazov, who sought to keep his republic Soviet 10 years ago, has regularly been awarded medals for heroism, patriotism and service to the Turkmen people and nation.
(Zarif Nazar of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)