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Turkmenistan: Human Rights Officials Criticize Investigation Into Assassination Plot

  • Antoine Blua

Last month's alleged assassination attempt against Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has reportedly led to a wave of repression aimed at government critics and their families in the republic. Some observers estimate that more than 100 people might have been arrested in connection with the failed plot. The international community is voicing concerns that many of those detained might have been targeted simply because of family ties to the exiled opposition figures named by Niyazov as primary suspects in the assassination attempt.

Prague, 11 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Many details surrounding the reported 25 November assassination attempt against Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov remain murky. But some human rights groups say one trend is becoming disturbingly clear -- Niyazov is using the failed plot as a pretext for conducting mass arrests and cracking down on the political opposition.

Turkmen authorities admit to having arrested 23 people in connection with the plot since unidentified assailants opened fire on the presidential motorcade as Niyazov traveled to his government office in Ashgabat. But rights groups, including Russia's Memorial, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, say that the number of people arrested could be higher -- possibly even more than 100. Moreover, they say many of them have been targeted because they are family members of four opposition members Niyazov has accused of organizing the plot.

Rachel Denber is the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch in New York. She says, "Since the assassination attempt, there have been a number of people arrested -- people, particularly, who are relatives of some of the prominent opposition figures in exile. Niyazov has accused the opposition in exile of orchestrating this assassination attempt. This follows a pretty standard pattern in Turkmenistan, whereby if the authorities aren't able to take someone who's wanted they just go after the relatives."

No one has claimed responsibility for the alleged attack, and the four opposition figures named by Niyazov -- former Deputy Agriculture Minister Saparmurat Yklymov; former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov; former Deputy Prime Minister and central bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov; and former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov -- have all denied any involvement.

Anna Sunder-Plassmann is a researcher on Central Asia at Amnesty International in London. She confirms there have been numerous arrests of family members of the four top suspects.

"We have names of at least 30 family members of Saparmurat Yklymov -- who has been implicated by the president as one of the main suspects of the attack [who were arrested]. We have also received information about the families of other people implicated in the November 25 attack. For example, the brother of Boris Shikhmuradov was arrested on December 7."

Sunder-Plassmann says Amnesty International has also documented three cases of police abuse of people detained in connection with the case. Two of the cases involve relatives of Yklymov, who was singled out by Niyazov as the primary mastermind of the plot.

Yklymov, who left Turkmenistan in 1996, currently lives in Sweden, where he was granted political asylum. His uncle, Oraz Yklymov, is a correspondent with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service in Moscow.

"[On] November 25, Niyazov's regime in Ashgabat arrested my sons -- Esenaman, 31, a businessmen, and Aili, 20, a student [at] Moscow University -- who had gone to Ashgabat for a one-week vacation. And now I have information from reliable sources that my sons have been savagely beaten in Ashgabat's KGB (National Security Service) prison."

Oraz Yklymov says he is particularly worried about his older son, who suffers from chronic otitis. He says Esenaman is no longer able to hear because of bleeding from his ears caused by severe beatings. His younger son, Aili, has reportedly been beaten as well. Neither has received treatment for his injuries.

But the government crackdown is not limited to family members of the top four suspects. The third case of alleged police abuse involves Davlatgeldi Annaniyazov, the brother of former political prisoner Gulgeldi Annaniyazov, who now lives in exile in Norway.

Gulgeldi Annaniyazov told Amnesty International he received information that security officers beat and humiliated his brother in front of his wife and children. He was detained on 30 November in Ashgabat.

Sunder-Plassmann says she fears the number of detainees and abuse cases is mounting unbeknownst to the outside world.

"It is very, very difficult to get information from Turkmenistan. People in Turkmenistan are often scared to give information. The phones are bugged in many cases. So we are very worried because the whereabouts of many of those detained are not known currently. And we fear for the safety of these people."

The Amnesty International researcher says she believes that any action taken by the Turkmen government to prosecute those involved in the assassination attempt must abide by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkmenistan is a party.

"We believe that especially in times of heightened tensions, like now in Turkmenistan, governments have to ensure that they abide by international human rights law. And this means in particular that the Turkmen authorities need to investigate the allegations of ill-treatment. And they have to ensure that all detainees are granted prompt access to legal counsel of their choice throughout the investigation, that they are not tortured or ill-treated, and that they should be charged with a recognizable criminal offense or otherwise released."

Niyazov has denied reports of human rights violations in connection with the assassination case, saying the investigation is being conducted according to the law. But the Turkmen president -- officially known as Turkmenbashi, or the leader of all Turkmen -- is widely believed to have a near-total monopoly on power in his country and little regard for the rule of law. A string of high-ranking defections over the past year have stung Niyazov, who responded by carrying out what appeared to be a politically motivated purge, particularly in the country's security apparatus.

But the government investigation into the alleged assassination attempt is drawing greater international attention. The European Union on 9 December issued a statement criticizing the detention of "many relatives" of the alleged instigators of the attack. The statement presses Turkmen authorities to act in "full compliance" with the country's international human rights obligations and to follow due process of law.

The U.S. State Department last week accused Turkmenistan of violating international legal procedure in its arrest of a U.S. citizen in connection with the attempt to kill Niyazov. The State Department also called on Ashgabat to conduct the investigation in a "full, fair, and transparent" manner.

Denber of Human Rights Watch welcomes the expression of EU and the U.S. concern, and says she hopes the international community will take concrete action.

"I'm hoping that -- particularly in the face of this newest round of repression -- the international community will really come to the aid and support of those activists in Turkmenistan who are brave enough to try to keep some hope alive for change."

Denber adds, however, that the years have seen a marked decrease in international pressure on Turkmenistan to improve its human rights record.