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Turkmenistan: Court Given Sweeping Powers To Sentence Would-Be Assassins

  • Antoine Blua

Turkmenistan's National Assembly -- the country's highest legislative body, consisting of the State Congress of Elders, the People's Council, and the National Revival Movement -- granted powers to the Supreme Court to administer "special punishment" to people found guilty of involvement in November's failed plot to assassinate President Saparmurat Niyazov. The resolution, which was announced this week, permits the Supreme Court to hand out life sentences to those convicted, with no possibility of amnesty, pardon, early release, or change of prison.

Prague, 17 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The National Assembly resolution applies to three former Turkmen officials and opposition leaders: Boris Shikhmuradov, Khudaiberdy Orazov, and Nurmukhammed Khanamov, who "betrayed the great aspirations" of the state by threatening the "holy life" of the president.

The parliamentary decree was signed by Niyazov and announced yesterday in the Turkmen media: "Boris Orazovitch Shikhmuradov, Khudaiberdy Artikovitch Orazov, and Nurmukhammed Tcharievitch Khanamov are declared traitors of the Fatherland. There will be no softened circumstances for them. That means that they cannot be exempted of the responsibility of the crime, and that they cannot receive any conditional early release from prison. The remaining prison term cannot be changed into a softer version, and the circumstances of their stay cannot be softened. The Supreme Court has been entitled to grant life sentences."

On 30 December at a session in the capital Ashgabat, the National Assembly approved life sentences for Shikhmuradov, Orazov, and Khanamov. The decision overruled original Supreme Court sentences of 25 years -- the maximum permitted under Turkmenistan Criminal Code -- for the three men's roles in the assassination attempt.

Orazov, a former central bank head, and Khanamov, a former ambassador to Turkey, are both living in self-imposed exile and were sentenced in absentia. Shikhmuradov, a former foreign minister who had also been living in exile, was arrested in December in Turkmenistan. The circumstances surrounding both his arrest and his televised confession -- which also implicated Orazov and Khanamov -- remain unclear. Human rights activists and other observers have complained that Shikhmuradov in his confession spoke in a groggy voice and appeared to have been beaten.

Anna Sunder-Plassmann is a researcher on Central Asia at the London-based human rights watchdog group Amnesty International. She told RFE/RL that the National Assembly move is part of larger pattern of repression in Turkmenistan: "The Supreme Council [or National Assembly] is clearly not an independent body. The president has a monopoly on power in Turkmenistan, and we believe that this decision is part of the wave of repression that followed the 25 November [the day of the assassination attempt] attack. In a press release issued one day after the attack we urged the Turkmen authorities to choose justice, not revenge, but they clearly haven't done that."

Meanwhile, proceedings in connection with the attempt on the president's life are continuing. At a trial taking place under a shroud of secrecy in Ashgabat, the Supreme Court on 15 January handed down a life sentence on Gyuvanch Djumaev, a prominent Turkmen businessman, as well as Annadurdy Annasakhatov and Nurmukhammed Orazgeldyev, ITAR-TASS reported. The three men were found guilty of planning and carrying out the assassination attempt. The court also ordered that the property of the three be confiscated.

Djumaev's son Timur was also sentenced to a 25-year jail term, and Djumaev's brother and father received 20 years each, AFP reported.

Sunder-Plassmann called the trial a "farce." "We have two main concerns about the ongoing trial. There's first of all a complete lack of transparency about the court proceedings. On the other hand, the sketchy information that we have been able to corroborate makes it very clear that this trial is a farce. The authorities have not published the names of those on trial. They haven't published the exact charges. It is not clear who exactly has been convicted already and how many sentences of life imprisonment have been passed."

Sunder-Plassmann noted that Niyazov predicted the outcome of the trial, further reinforcing the impression of a farce. In remarks broadcast on Turkmen TV on 12 January, the Turkmen president announced that 32 people suspected of involvement in the putative November attempt would go on trial this week. "Out of the 32 accused people, 20 will be imprisoned according to the law. The remaining 12 will be deported [to remote regions of the country]."

According to officials, 61 people were arrested during the course of the investigation. But the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Moscow-based rights group Memorial say at least 200 people have been detained and more than 100 still face charges.

Aaron Rhodes, the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation, also condemned the trial proceedings. "The whole scenario raises so many questions that it deprives anybody of the sense that this is a legal [process] in which there is any respect for the accused. Do these people have access to attorneys? Are these trials opened in any sense to monitors? Can you say that these are independent judicial authorities in any sense? I don't think so," he said.

Freimut Duve, the media-freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), on 16 January strongly condemned the abuse of Turkmenistan's television media to humiliate and individuals accused of involvement in the plot against Niyazov. Speaking at the OSCE Permanent Council, the organization's main regular decision-making body, Duve said, "The rhetoric used is often obscene and in most countries would be unprintable."

In an interview with RFE/RL, Duve elaborated on the nature of the televised confessions: "You present those you want to get rid of on TV as the accused ones. Of course, these people have been tortured before so they say that they have done this and this. Everything is staged like a theater play."

Duve noted that Turkmenistan has all the features of what he calls "totalitarian feudalism," complete with racist rhetoric illustrated by Niyazov's comment about Shikhmuradov, who is half Turkmen and half Armenian. "His blood is diluted with the blood of a different nationality," Niyazov said, adding: "Previously, to make Turkmens weaker, their blood was diluted. Where the true blood of our ancestors is mixed with other blood their national spirit is low."

Duve said: "We are dealing with a completely totalitarian system. We are not only dealing with a dictatorship. That's to say we have exactly the same development as we had with [Josef] Stalin, and in a way with [Adolf] Hitler. It means you have to identify one [common] enemy, the foreign blood, the non-Turkmen blood. That's why [Niyazov] has already a lot of enemies within the country. He speaks of 'diluted blood.' Secondly you have to get rid of the 'traitors' in the upper levels of power. Stalin did the same."

According to Steve Sabol, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina and an expert on Turkmenistan, recent developments will have deep consequences on the economy of the hydrocarbon-rich republic. "Internally, it's going to make it more repressive, if that's possible. And externally, it's going to make any international agenda almost impossible. The needs of Turkmenistan are for foreign investment. Now, with the crackdown internally, the international community -- I think -- is going to be very, very reluctant to cooperate with Turkmenistan. I suspect that foreign governments -- the EU, the United States and Russia -- are going to be hesitant to go forward with any of the international aid programs, any pipeline deals, which is only going to make the economic situation in Turkmenistan even worse. I suspect governments and businesses are going to be very reluctant to invest anything in this climate," Sabol said.

The methods used by the Turkmen government to investigate the alleged assassination attempt have already drawn international attention.

In December, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Turkmen authorities had carried out summary trials and arrested opposition members and civil-society activists apparently unconnected to the attack against Niyazov. The deputy chief of the U.S. mission to the OSCE Permanent Council, Douglas Davidson, cited reports saying numerous confessions had been extracted by torture. The European Union also issued a statement criticizing the detention of numerous relatives of the alleged instigators of the attack.

(Naz Nazar of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

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