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Central Asia Report: January 23, 2003

23 January 2003, Volume 3, Number 4

TURKMENISTAN PROSECUTES 'TRAITORS TO THE FATHERLAND.' With the alleged mastermind of the November assassination attempt against Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov already behind bars, judges in Ashgabat have now set to work with a vengeance sending alleged co-plotters to jail. Almost 50 men have been sentenced to long prison terms in a little over a week. The trials continue behind a veil of secrecy. None of the trials has produced a verdict of innocent.

A new weapon in the Supreme Court's arsenal as it prosecutes alleged conspirators is the ability to declare them "traitors to the fatherland." Turkmenistan's highest legislative body, the National Assembly, apparently passed a resolution on 30 December (it was announced in the media only on 15 January) empowering the court to ignore the maximum penalty for criminal offenses currently permitted by the constitution, which is 25 years, and instead to administer "special punishment" of life imprisonment with no possibility of amnesty, pardon, early release, or change of prison to those designated "traitors to the fatherland" (see "Turkmenistan: Court Given Sweeping Powers To Sentence Would-Be Assassins,", 17 January 2002). The resolution, which was signed by Niyazov, justified this extraordinary measure with a vague reference to "the universal recognition" that the assassination attempt constituted an act of terrorism.

Turkmen Television reported on 15 January that the first three men to be thus designated traitors were Former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov (the attack's alleged mastermind), former central-bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov, and former Turkmen Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov. According to the resolution, "they betrayed the lofty aspirations of our state" by threatening the "holy life" of the president. All three were sentenced to life imprisonment at the end of December. Shikhmuradov was convicted after he was captured in Turkmenistan (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 2 January 2003). Orazov and Khanamov, who have been living in exile in Russia, were convicted in absentia.

The trials of scores more people rounded up in connection with the assassination bid got under way last week in Ashgabat. Turkmen officials say that 61 suspects were arrested during the course of the investigation. International human rights watchdog groups believe that over 200 people have been arrested and more than 100 face charges. They also say the trials are being conducted in a wholly nontransparent manner. The authorities have neither revealed the names of those on trial nor the precise charges against them. It is unknown whether the accused have access to legal counsel. Most of the convictions go unmentioned in the media.

Judicial independence or impartiality is not to be expected when Niyazov, in announcing on Turkmen Television on 12 January that 32 people would be going on trial that week, simultaneously stated what the results would be. "Of the 32 accused people, 20 will be imprisoned according to the law. The remaining 12 will be deported [to penal settlements in remote areas of Turkmenistan]," he said. The most likely spot for such settlements, which, gulag-style, are also slated to receive political dissenters of all stripes, is the desolate Bekdash region in the western Garagum Desert, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting noted on 16 January.

On 15 January Turkmenistan's Supreme Court declared businessman Guvanch Djumaev, Annadurdy Annasakhatov, and Nurmukhammed Orazgeldyev "traitors to the fatherland" and sentenced them to life imprisonment after finding them guilty of planning and carrying out the attack on the president, ITAR-TASS reported. The court also ordered that their property be confiscated. Meanwhile Djumaev's son Timur was sentenced to a 25-year jail term. Djumaev's brother and father received 20 years each, AFP said. It is unclear what they were charged with, but it has been characteristic of this investigation from the start to target not only individuals but their family members as well.

On 18 January a further 10 men received sentences ranging from 20 to 25 years in jail, ITAR-TASS reported. Among them were former parliament speaker Tagandurdy Khallyev and an Uzbek citizen, Horsaid Safarov, who was the first foreigner to be convicted for involvement in the plot. Additionally, a life sentence was handed down against businessman Yklym Yklymov, brother of former Deputy Agriculture Minister Sapar Yklymov. The latter has lived in Sweden since 1997 and is accused of being one of the key figures behind the assassination attempt. Sapar Yklymov began a hunger strike on 20 January to protest the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, which he called worse than in Iraq or North Korea, Reuters reported.

On 21 January seven more people were designated "traitors to the fatherland" and incarcerated, ITAR-TASS said. (Branding them traitors seems to have been a gratuitous humiliation, however, since the court did not hand any of them life sentences as "special punishments.") They included former Turkmen Foreign Minister Batyr Berdyev and former Dashoguz Governor Yazgeldy Gundogdyev -- both given 25-year sentences -- and former head of the Turkmen Border Service Akmurat Kabulov.

The impression that Niyazov may be using the November attack as a pretext to settle old scores was boosted by the fact that the former head and deputy head of the National Security Committee (KNB) were also caught in the net and convicted (Saparmurat Seyidov and Orazmuhammet Berdyev, respectively). Rumors of festering dissatisfaction and growing opposition to the president within the ranks of the KNB have been rife since its chief, Mukhammed Nazarov, was summarily toppled and imprisoned last year (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 9 May 2002). Finally, Boris Shikhmuradov's brother Konstantin and one Rustam Djumaev received 17- and 18-year sentences. On 22 January, Konstantin's sister Larisa circulated a statement in Moscow that said that he had never been involved in politics, let alone opposition activity, and his only crime was to be Boris's brother, Interfax reported.

On 22 January Niyazov told a government session that 46 conspirators had been sentenced, ITAR-TASS reported. Tallies of convictions differ among observers given the secrecy shrouding the trials, but of the 46 apparently seven men had received life sentences and eight men had received 25-year sentences. Also on 22 January the president ordered the Prosecutor-General's Office to publish a volume titled "Traitors to the Fatherland." "The book should contain everything related to the progress of the investigations and the testimonies of those in custody and the court verdicts," Niyazov said. Newspapers should begin publishing the confessions of convicted plotters, he added.

At the same meeting, ITAR-TASS reported, parliament speaker Ovezgeldy Ataev announced plans to amend the constitution to allow for life sentences and confirm, retroactively, the legality of those life sentences already handed down by the Supreme Court against those designated "traitors to the fatherland."

GOVERNMENT GIVES GROUND AS KYRGYZ REFERENDUM BATTLE RAGES ON. The ongoing political fight in Kyrgyzstan over the referendum scheduled for 2 February, when citizens will vote on proposed amendments to the constitution and on whether to confirm President Askar Akaev's term in office (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 16 January 2003), centered around two issues last week: a pair of especially controversial clauses that the opposition demanded (successfully) should be struck from the new draft, and the possibility that holding the referendum next month is illegal. Akaev's supporters and critics remain poles apart over the constitutional changes to be introduced, with the former predicting a more balanced and harmonious political structure, and the latter detecting a formula for a virtual dictatorship. on 17 January offered a sample of the opposition's objections to the draft. They included a strengthening of the executive power at the expense of the legislature; presidential prerogatives to appoint and dismiss both government officials and judges; restrictions on public meetings and marches, which would require government approval; and omission of any reference to freedom of the press.

Meanwhile, in Bishkek representatives of 11 political parties and seven NGOs issued a statement of "categorical disagreement" with the new draft of the constitution, which, they said, fundamentally differed from the version prepared by the Constitutional Council after it passed through the hands of an experts' group created by Akaev earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2003). They objected to the abolition of party-list voting in parliamentary elections, and demanded that the number of parliament deputies be kept at 90, of whom 45 would be elected from party lists. They complained that, according to the new document, the state would support not merely the president but all his family members after his retirement. They also warned that its wording could open the door to Akaev to run for president again in 2005, reported on 16 January. (Akaev supporters retorted that the wording said no such thing.)

The statement also deplored the fact that the new version deprived the public of the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court, which would be limited to the president and members of the government, parliament, and Central Election Committee. Jailed former Vice President Feliks Kulov focused on this point in a statement on 16 January, saying that Article 17 of the current constitution forbids the adoption of a law that would restrict citizens' rights, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. This issue -- a citizen's right of appeal to the Constitutional Court -- stayed in the foreground as the Legislative Assembly (the lower chamber of the Kyrgyz parliament) embarked on 16 January on a three-day session to discuss the proposed amendments and debate the legality of the referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2003). A resolution proposed by opposition deputy Ishenbai Kadyrbekov requested Akaev to postpone the planned referendum until parliament adopted a law on the conduct of referendums. That resolution was defeated on 20 January, Kyrgyz Television reported.

Meanwhile another bone of contention to emerge during discussions was a draft provision (Article 66) granting the president the absolute right to veto legislation. At the end of the three-day session, Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov told the parliament on 20 January that this amendment, and the amendment limiting the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court (Article 82), would be reconsidered by the team of legal experts. On the following day the head of the team, Cholponkul Barabaev, said it had done so and conceded both points: it had dropped the president's absolute veto and restored the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court, RFE/RL reported. It was a moderate victory for the anti-Akaev forces. Nevertheless, oppositionist Jypar Jekshe said that simply changing those two articles in the draft was not enough (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2003). Opposition parties are fighting for as much as possible of the draft prepared by the Constitutional Council to be restored.

Although the Legislative Assembly voted against postponing the referendum, the Constitutional Court on 21 January accepted an appeal by opposition parliament deputy Adaham Madumarov, who demanded that the court rule on whether the referendum was lawful, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. That, too, was a small victory for the opposition, especially as the court's chairwoman, Cholpon Baekova, has said publicly it would be desirable to delay the vote until 2004, although her reasoning was based on expediency, not legality (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 16 January 2003).

Meanwhile, Central Election Commission Chairman Sulaiman Imanbaev denied that the referendum was unlawful or illegitimate. "A referendum on a new version of Kyrgyzstan's constitution is not the same as voting on a new constitution.... Some politicians and mass media are saying that the new version is, in effect, a new constitution. This is wrong. We are talking about making some changes to the main law of the country, which has been in effect since 1993," he told journalists in Bishkek, Interfax reported on 20 January. He added, "Changes were made to the constitution in 1994, 1996, and 1998. Nobody is challenging the laws passed in those referendums."

Even if they entertained hopes that the referendum might get postponed, members of the opposition spent last week preparing to go into battle on 2 February. They established a headquarters on 17 January to monitor preparations for the referendum and coordinate measures against it. Its director, Omurbek Tekebaev, who is leader of the Socialist Atameken (Motherland) Party, told RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau on 18 January that the new body would mount a campaign encouraging citizens to boycott the referendum or at least vote against the proposed amendments.

A few days earlier, Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev appealed to local administration heads to ensure the electorate took part in the referendum and that the opposition did not resort to "illegal actions," including a boycott (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2003). The government seems determined to get its way on 2 February. To ensure affirmative answers to the referendum's questions, the bar has been set very low: the referendum will be considered valid if 50 percent of the electorate participates, and the amendments will take effect if 50 percent of those who vote approve them, according to Interfax on 20 January. In other words, the assent of merely 25 percent of the voters will suffice to usher in sweeping changes which -- depending on which side you believe -- will either turn Kyrgyzstan into one of the best-regulated democracies in Eurasia, or lay the foundations for enhanced autocracy.