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Turkmenistan: A Rare Act Of Public Protest?

  • Bruce Pannier

A rare event took place in Turkmenistan on 15-16 April. There were demonstrations outside the building of the country's Committee for National Security (KNB), the successor to the KGB. Those who gathered criticized the heavy hand the KNB has used against their relatives and friends. The police did not move to break up the protests. The KNB is currently in disgrace after Turkmenistan's president recently dismissed the spy organization's top officials. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at these rare public demonstrations of discontent in Turkmenistan.

Prague, 17 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There was something of a surprise in mid-April when some 300 people gathered outside the building of Turkmenistan's KNB to protest the actions of the organization, which is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

A demonstration against any government body in Turkmenistan is a risk. Protesting outside the building of the organization dedicated to keeping one of the region's most repressive governments in power would seem the surest way to spend a long time in jail -- or worse. That demonstrators gathered for a second day -- albeit in smaller numbers -- is remarkable.

Who organized these rare acts of public protest in Turkmenistan? And were they really acts of protest? There seems to be more to this tale than is revealed at first glance.

On 15 April and again the next day, protesters assembled in front of the building that houses Turkmenistan's notorious KNB. The numbers had dwindled to about 50 people on the second day, but it was strange that police made no effort to stop the demonstrations.

Attempts to protest Turkmen government policies in 1995 led to the arrests of the organizers, who were then branded "drug addicts" and thrown in jail. Some later died there. That was the last public demonstration of discontent in Turkmenistan, barring a few minor rallies against the destruction of homes to make way for roads and new buildings.

The KNB is actually a safe target. In March, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov started a purge of the KNB, removing top officials in the spy organization and disclosing to the public that the organization had abused its duties.

Niyazov said the head of the KNB, Mukhammed Nazarov, stockpiled narcotics and sold them instead of simply confiscating and destroying them. Niyazov said rooms in the KNB building were used for torture and rape by KNB officials. The Turkmen president said the guilty could buy their freedom from corrupt KNB officials and choose to incriminate the innocent instead.

So the demonstrations outside the building of the disgraced Committee for National Security could be attributed to a rare opportunity for the public to vent their anger and hammer the final nails into the coffin of the previous KNB leadership.

People did come to complain about the treatment their relatives had received from the KNB under the former spy bosses, but words from some members of the crowd cast doubt on the spontaneity of the event.

That Turkmenistan's KNB was brutal has been cited in numerous complaints from human rights organizations. One protester, a Turkmen woman, told a tale of abuse at the hands of the KNB: "We knew earlier [about the KNB's viciousness] but were afraid to say anything. There was a handsome young man they sent to prison for nothing. When he refused to confess to the crimes they charged him with, they pulled out his fingernails. He died in prison. I helped bury him myself. After he died, they came and arrested his brother."

The woman said that during the funeral, when grieving friends and relatives gathered, the father of the dead boy asked those attending the funeral not to complain about the torture his son had undergone at the hands of the KNB. He said he feared his other son, also under arrest, would suffer a similar fate if people caused a scandal.

Another protester told the story of her brother, who was imprisoned and beaten by the KNB: "I am from Balkanabad [Region]. When my brother was in the Turkmenbashi prison, I asked him who was beating him, and he said, 'If I tell you and I'm freed, they will come and beat me some more.'"

Certainly, there is reason in Turkmenistan to fear the KNB, but the same people who came to complain said they had also come for another reason.

"I came to thank Poran Berdyev, [to] thank him for helping the people, for making decisions fairly. What brought me here were the former leaders of the KNB. My brother was beaten 11 months ago, and I came to make sure this does not happen in the future."

Poran Berdyev is the man who is now the head of the KNB. He has been in that position for approximately two weeks.

Taken at face value, this week's rallies would seem to be the acts of public protest that organizations monitoring human rights and democratic freedoms have so often complained are impossible in repressive Turkmenistan. Human rights organizations and Central Asian analysts following events in Turkmenistan would readily say that nothing is done in Turkmenistan without President Niyazov's approval.

The campaign against the KNB may only be Niyazov's attempt at showing the public he is not involved in corrupt practices and is genuinely committed to halting such misdeeds.

Berdyev has found a solution to public protests by creating a special time on Mondays -- between 1500 and 1800 -- when people can come and air their complaints. In the meantime, the protests against the KNB have gone unreported in Turkmenistan's media.

(Rozinar Khoudaiberdiev and Naz Nazar of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and Saparmurat Ovezberdiyev in RFE/RL's Ashgabat bureau contributed to this report.)